North Korea test-fires missile toward sea as U.S. visit South

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Sunday fired a short-range ballistic missile at its eastern seas, continuing a provocative series of weapons tests as a US aircraft carrier visits South Korea for joint military exercises in response to the North’s growing nuclear threat.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile, which was launched from the western inland town of Taechon, flew 600 kilometers (370 miles) across the country at a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers (37 miles) before ending up in waters off the coast East coast of North Korea landed.

South Korea’s presidential office said National Security Director Kim Sung-han called an emergency National Security Council meeting, at which members denounced the launch as a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and accused the north of escalating tensions in the region.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said the launch posed no “imminent threat to US personnel or territory or our allies,” but nonetheless emphasized the destabilizing effect of North Korea’s illegal nuclear weapons and missile programs.

The launch came as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group arrived in South Korea to take part in joint military exercises between the two countries aimed at demonstrating their strength against growing North Korean threats.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said its nuclear envoy Kim Gunn held phone calls with Sung Kim, US President Joe Biden’s special envoy to North Korea, and Funakoshi Takehiro, director-general for Asian and Oceanic Affairs at Japan’s foreign ministry, to discuss trilateral cooperation North Korean threats.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement Tokyo was “doing its utmost” to gather information about the North Korean launch and to confirm the safety of ships and planes, although there were no immediate reports of damage.

The North Korean threat is also expected to be a key agenda when US Vice President Kamala Harris visits South Korea next week after attending the state funeral of assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

North Korea ramped up its testing activities to a record pace in 2022, testing more than 30 ballistic weapons, including its first ICBMs since 2017. North Korea is exploiting a rift in the United Nations Security Council that has deepened over Russia’s war in Ukraine to speed up arms development .

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has paused his weapons tests with repeated threats that the North would proactively use its nuclear weapons if threatened, adding to security concerns for its conventionally armed rival South Korea.

Flight details released by the Seoul military suggest North Korea may have tested a short-range nuclear-capable weapon modeled on Russia’s Iskander missiles, which fly at relatively low altitudes and are maneuverable in flight, making them harder to intercept missile defenses.

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it was remarkable that the missile flew 600 kilometers (370 miles) from its Taechon launch point — about the distance from South Korea’s southern port of Busan, where the Reagan docked at arrived Friday.

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The Iskander-like missiles are part of a growing arsenal of short-range solid-fuel systems that North Korea has been developing since 2019. The North describes some of these weapons as “tactical,” which experts say represents a threat to arm them with small nuclear weapons on the battlefield and use them proactively during conflicts to counter the more powerful conventional forces of South Korea and the United States, which number about 28,500 troops station in the south, to blunt.

North Korea has so far dismissed US and South Korean calls for a return to nuclear diplomacy, which have stalled since 2019 over disagreements over lifting US-led sanctions on the North and North’s disarmament moves.

The arrival of the USS Reagan in South Korea comes after Kim told Pyongyang’s stamp parliament this month that he would never give up his nuclear weapons and missiles, which he needs to counter what he perceives as US hostility.

Kim’s speech came as North Korea’s lawmakers passed legislation enshrining its status as a nuclear power, authorizing the pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons in a variety of scenarios threatening the country or its leadership, and articulating an escalating nuclear doctrine.

Speaking to US and South Korean troops aboard the Reagan, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said the deployment of strategic US assets to the region demonstrates the US’s unwavering commitment to defending South Korea. He said the North will meet with an overwhelming response if it attempts to use nuclear weapons, according to a statement from his ministry.

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Sunday’s test could soon be followed by a more provocative weapons display, as South Korean officials said they’ve spotted signs North Korea is preparing to test a missile system to be launched from submarines. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s office said on Saturday that he was briefed on such developments before flying home from a visit to Canada.

On Wednesday, 38 North, a North Korea-aligned website, said its analysis of commercial satellite imagery shows several barges and other ships gathered in the eastern port of Sinpo, where North Korea has a major shipyard that builds submarines. According to the report, the North may be preparing to launch a new submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles.

North Korea has strongly advocated being able to launch nuclear missiles from submarines. Such weapons would theoretically increase North Korea’s deterrence by ensuring retaliatory action after averting a nuclear attack on land.

Ballistic missile submarines would also add a new maritime threat to the North’s growing collection of solid fuel weapons fired from land vehicles being developed with the apparent aim of overpowering missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan.

However, experts say the heavily sanctioned nation would need significantly more time, resources and major technological upgrades to build at least several submarines that could sail quietly and deliver attacks reliably.

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