North Korea conducts third weapons test in just over two weeks
The North launched one short-range missile at around 6:40 a.m. from an area near its border with China, the South Korean military said Tuesday, with the Japanese Defense Ministry calling the launch an apparent test of a ballistic weapon.
The missile was not believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and may even have faltered midflight, a high-ranking Japanese government official said.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) did not clarify whether Tuesday’s launch was a ballistic weapon, but said Seoul and Washington were analyzing the launch for additional information.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, however, said the missile appeared to be ballistic, telling reporters that Japan was “stepping up its vigilance” after the spate of tests, which the government characterized as “threatening the peace and safety of our country and the entire region” and a “serious problem for the international community.”
The JCS said the missile had been fired from Mupyong-ri, Jagang Province, around 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the North Korean border with China. In July 2017, the North also launched an intercontinental ballistic missile from Mupyong-ri that traveled on a lofted trajectory and splashed down off Hokkaido.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that it was “aware” of the missile launch, but also did not reveal specifics of the weapon tested.
“The missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” it said, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name.
Further details — including the estimated distance and height that the missile had traveled — were not immediately available.
But Japanese State Minister of Defense Yasuhide Nakayama told reporters Tuesday that it was “clear” the purpose of the latest test was to further refine their missile capabilities. Asked why information on the launch had been comparatively slow to emerge hours after the test, he stressed that further expert analysis in concert with the U.S. and South Korea was “necessary.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, ordered a “comprehensive and close analysis” of the intentions behind the latest launch, a spokesman for the presidential Blue House said.
Just days earlier, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had hinted that Pyongyang would consider declaring a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, as proposed by Moon, as well as holding a summit with the South.
Earlier this month, the North fired two ballistic missiles into Japan’s EEZ — an act Suga slammed as “outrageous” — just days after testing a new weapon believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to most of Japan.
Pyongyang later said the two ballistic weapons had been a test of a new “railway-borne missile system” designed as a potential counterstrike option against any forces that threaten the country.
North Korea is prohibited from developing or testing ballistic missiles under a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The latest test-firing came as North Korean Ambassador to the United Nations Kim Song told the U.N. General Assembly the same day that his country had a “right” to develop weapons for self-defense in the face of what Pyongyang calls the United States’ “hostile policy.”
“Nobody can deny our righteous right to self-defense” to test and develop weapons, he said in New York.
He also threw cold water on the prospect of a quick return to denuclearization talks with the United States.
“If the U.S. shows its bold decision to give up its hostile policy, we are also prepared to respond willingly at any time,” he said. “But it is our judgment that there is no prospect, at the present stage, for the U.S. to really withdraw its hostile policy.”
The ambassador pointed to joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, which Pyongyang views as a rehearsal for invasion, and the dispatch of “strategic weapons … in and around the Korean Peninsula,” demanding that the exercises be scrapped and the weapons removed.
Although the North’s recent missile tests have not included the longer-range weapons that put the continental United States at risk, analysts say the smaller, “tactical” weapons tested — including those believed capable of carrying nuclear warheads — present an equally unnerving threat to U.S. and allied forces in South Korea and Japan.
The latest spate of weapons tests also come as the North worked to expand the enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in recent weeks, two reports based on satellite imagery said on Sept. 16.
The expansion, coupled with the recent weapons tests after months of silence, were seen as signs that leader Kim Jong Un has been shedding the self-imposed constraints on his nuclear weapons program that helped bring about three meetings with then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
Denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been stalled since 2019, largely over disagreements on the easing of crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions that have suffocated the North Korean economy.
After completing a monthslong policy review earlier this year, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said that it would aim for a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” seeking the North’s eventual denuclearization, adding that it was prepared to meet anywhere, anytime.
The U.S. State Department reiterated this stance after Tuesday’s test.
“We remain committed to a diplomatic approach to the DPRK and call on them to engage in dialogue,” a spokesperson said.