Seoul, South Korea (AFP) – North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters Thursday after the United States redeployed an aircraft carrier near the Korean peninsula in response to Pyongyang’s earlier launch of a nuclear-capable missile over Japan.
The latest missile launches indicate that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is determined to continue weapons tests aimed at bolstering his nuclear arsenal in defiance of international sanctions. Many experts say Kim’s goal is to eventually win US recognition as a legitimate nuclear state and lift those sanctions, although the international community has shown no sign of allowing that to happen.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the latest missiles were fired 22 minutes from the North’s capital region and landed between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. The first missile flew 350 kilometers (217 mi) and reached a maximum altitude of 80 kilometers (50 mi), while the second missile flew 800 kilometers (497 mi) at a peak of 60 kilometers (37 mi).
Details of the flight were similar to Japanese estimates announced by Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, who confirmed that the missiles did not reach Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
He added that the second missile may have been launched in an “irregular” trajectory. It is a term previously used to describe the flight characteristics of a North Korean weapon similar to the Russian Iskander missile, which travels at low altitudes and is designed to be maneuverable in flight to improve its chances of evading missile defenses.
South Korea’s military said it had beefed up its monitoring posture and maintained its readiness in close coordination with the United States. The US Indo-Pacific Command said the launches did not pose a direct threat to the US or its allies, but still highlighted the “destabilizing effect” of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who was expected to call South Korean President Yun Suk-yul about the North Korean threat later Thursday, said North Korea’s continued launches are “absolutely intolerable.”
Yoon’s office said National Security Director Kim Sung Han discussed the launch at an emergency security meeting where members discussed plans to prepare for more hostilities in North Korea, including military provocations.
The launches were North Korea’s sixth round of weapons tests in less than two weeks, adding to a record number of missile launches this year that drew condemnation from the United States and other countries. South Korean officials may soon up the ante by testing an ICBM or conducting its first nuclear test since 2017 and seventh overall, escalating an old pattern of escalating tensions before attempting to extract foreign concessions.
Moon Hong-sik, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said North Korea’s accelerated tests also reflect the urgent need to achieve Kim Jong Un’s weapons development goals. Kim last year described an extensive wish list for advanced nuclear weapons systems, including more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles, multi-warhead missiles, underwater nuclear missiles and tactical nuclear weapons.
Moon said North Korea is “moving according to the timetable it has set itself.”
On Tuesday, North Korea staged its most provocative weapons demonstration since 2017, firing a medium-range missile over Japan, forcing the Japanese government to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains.
Experts said the weapon would likely be a Hwasong-12 missile capable of reaching the US Pacific region of Guam and beyond.
Other weapons tested earlier included Iskander-like missiles and other ballistic weapons designed to hit key targets in South Korea, including US military bases there.
Thursday’s launches come as the US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan returned to waters east of South Korea in what the South Korean military described as an effort to show the “resolute will” of allies to counter persistent provocations and threats from North Korea.
The aircraft carrier was in the region last week as part of South Korea-US exercises and other Allied exercises involving Japan. North Korea regards such US-led exercises near the peninsula as a rehearsal for the invasion and views the US aircraft carrier training as more provocative.
The North’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday that the redeployment of the Reagan strike group poses a “serious threat to the stability of the situation on and around the Korean peninsula.” The ministry said it strongly condemned the US-led effort in the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions on North Korea over its recent missile test, which it described as “merely a reaction” to the joint US-South Korea exercises.
After North Korea launched a medium-range missile, the US and South Korea also conducted their own live-fire exercises which have so far included surface-to-surface ballistic missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from fighter jets.
But one of the launches similarly nearly caused disaster early Wednesday when a malfunctioning South Korean Huomo-2 missile overturned shortly after takeoff and fell to the ground at an air base in the eastern port city of Gangneung. The South Korean military said no one was injured and civilian facilities were not affected.
After the North Korean launch on Tuesday, the United States, Britain, France, Albania, Norway and Ireland called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. But Wednesday’s session ended without consensus, This confirms the division among the permanent members of the Council, which has been deepened by the Russian war on Ukraine.
Russia and China insisted during the meeting to fellow Security Council members that US-led military exercises in the region had prompted North Korea to act. The United States and its allies have expressed concern that the council’s inability to reach consensus on North Korea’s record number of missile launches this year has been emboldening North Korea and undermining the authority of the most powerful body in the United Nations.
North Korea has fired more than 40 ballistic and cruise missiles at more than 20 launch events this year, using stalled diplomacy with the United States and Russia in the war on Ukraine as a window to accelerate weapons development.
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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