North Korea Fires Two Ballistic Missiles off Its East Coast
North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korean and Japanese officials said, as Pyongyang returns to weapons tests after saying that its patience for talking had worn thin.
The provocation from the Kim Jong Un regime drew immediate recrimination from the U.S. and Japan, while South Korea strengthened its defensive posture. A ballistic-missile test by North Korea violates United Nations Security Council resolutions. But the isolated regime has long ignored those orders.
The Kim regime has stonewalled outreach by the Biden administration and South Korean officials this year. Pyongyang seethed over recent combined U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Kim Yo Jong, the dictator’s sister, said last month that peace and security on the Korean Peninsula could come only from a substantial deterrent, and not from words.
The short-range missiles, launched from a central region of North Korea, were fired just after 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday. They flew about 500 miles at an altitude of roughly 37 miles, before splashing into the waters between Korea and Japan, according to Seoul’s military.
“This is an outrage that threatens our nation and regional peace and security,” said Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, shortly after the test occurred.
The missile technology tested by North Korea doesn’t pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to allies, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. But the launch shows how North Korea’s “illicit weapons program” has a destabilizing impact, it said.
The U.S. and North Korea haven’t sat down for formal talks in nearly two years. By giving the Biden administration the cold shoulder, North Korea is hoping that weapons tests up the ante, if not gain an upper hand, whenever negotiations resume with what Pyongyang perceives as an overly eager Washington, said Cheon Seong-whun, a former South Korean national-security official.
“They are trying to elevate the need for the U.S. to resume talks,” Mr. Cheon said.
North Korea had been keeping a relatively low profile since the pandemic began. Before Wednesday, it had conducted a single ballistic-missile test this year, on March 25.
The Kim regime had appeared consumed by domestic problems, including a battered economy, Covid-19 fears and potential food shortages. Last week, the North held a low-key military parade that didn’t show off any major weaponry. The event appeared to be more focused on boosting the morale of North Koreans rather than sending a message to the outside world, security analysts said.
But then in a Monday state-media report, North Korea said it had successfully tested new long-range cruise missiles that were a “strategic weapon of great significance.”
Weapons tests are one of Pyongyang’s methods meant to dial up pressure on Washington. But the Kim regime hasn’t reached for a major escalation, such as a nuclear test or the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, in nearly four years.
After the 2019 Vietnam summit between Mr. Kim and Donald Trump ended without a deal, the North has conducted more than 20 launches of shorter-range weapons, including Wednesday’s test. Those missiles aren’t designed to reach the U.S. mainland, though they pose serious threats to neighboring Japan and South Korea.
“With provocations, North Korea is paradoxically expediting the international community’s calls for dialogue,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at South Korea’s Dongguk University.
Hours after North Korea’s recent launch, South Korea carried out a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test of its own. Such weapons technology, South Korea’s presidential office said, helps secure deterrence and should play a prominent role in a self-reliant national defense.
The two Koreas’ ballistic-missile launches coincided with a visit to Seoul by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who met his counterpart. Asked about the North’s weekend cruise-missile test, Mr. Wang played down its significance and suggested that countries work toward resuming dialogue with North Korea.
“Other countries conduct military activities as well, not just North Korea,” Mr. Wang said.
Last month, the U.N.’s atomic agency said Pyongyang appeared to have resumed operating its plutonium-producing reactor at its Yongbyon facility, calling it “deeply troubling.”
On Tuesday, U.S. nuclear envoy Sung Kim held talks in Tokyo with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, discussing humanitarian aid to North Korea. Washington is prepared to discuss aid regardless of progress on denuclearization, said Mr. Kim, who reiterated that the U.S. has no hostile intent toward North Korea.
With China’s foreign minister in town, officials in Seoul should push Beijing to provide greater transparency about China’s role in the North Korean nuclear issue, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“China’s economic aid, diplomatic backing and tolerance of sanctions evasion make it the top enabler of the Kim regime,” Prof. Easley said. “Yet Wang Yi acts as if North Korea’s missile tests and resumption of nuclear activity at Yongbyon are someone else’s problem.”
By Timothy W. Martin and Dasl Yoon