North Korea yesterday fired two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea in its sixth round of weapons launches this month, South Korea’s military said.
Experts said that North Korea’s unusually fast pace in testing activity underscores an intent to pressure US President Joe Biden’s administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at exchanging a release of crippling US-led sanctions against it.
The renewed pressure came as the COVID-19 pandemic further shakes North Korea’s economy, which was already battered by crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons program and decades of mismanagement by its own government.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the weapons, which were likely short range, were launched five minutes apart from the eastern coastal town of Hamhung and flew 190km on an apogee of 20km before landing at sea.
Aviation authorities issued a notice to air missions for pilots operating in South Korean airspace, advising them of a “missile launched from North Korea” and to maintain close communication with air traffic control, the South Korean Office of Civil Aviation’s Web site said.
The US Indo Pacific Command said that the latest launches, while highlighting the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s weapons program, did not pose an “immediate threat to US personnel or territory, or to our allies.”
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed that there were no reports of damage to vessels and aircraft around the Japanese coast.
He called the repeated missile firings “extremely regrettable” and contraventions of UN Security Council resolutions.
Senior South Korean security and military officials gathered for an emergency National Security Council meeting where they expressed strong regret over North Korea’s continuing launches and urged Pyongyang to recommit to dialogue, the South Korean presidential office said.
North Korea last week issued a veiled threat to resume the testing of nuclear explosives and long-range missiles targeting the US, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suspended in 2018 while initiating diplomacy with the US.
Kim’s high-stakes summitry with then-US president Donald Trump derailed in 2019 after the US rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.
Some experts said that North Korea could dramatically escalate weapons demonstrations after the Winter Olympics, which begin on Friday next week in China, North Korea’s main ally and economic lifeline.
The experts said that Pyongyang’s leadership likely feels it could use a dramatic provocation to move the needle with the Biden administration, which has been preoccupied with bigger adversaries including China and Russia.
The Biden administration has offered open-ended talks, but showed no willingness to ease sanctions unless Kim takes steps to abandon the nuclear weapons and missiles he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
The North has been ramping up its testing activity since late last year, demonstrating various missiles and delivery systems apparently designed to overwhelm missile defense systems in the region.
Experts said that Kim is trying to apply more pressure on rivals Washington and Seoul to accept it as a nuclear power in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions and convert diplomacy with Washington into mutual arms-reduction negotiations.
Yesterday’s launch came two days after South Korea’s military detected North Korea flight-testing two suspected cruise missiles at an unspecified inland area.
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