North Korea launches suspected ballistic missiles

SEOUL: North Korea fired two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea, in what would be its first substantive provocation to the new US administration of Joe Biden.

The nuclear-armed country has a long history of using weapons tests as provocations, in a carefully calibrated process to forward its objectives. Donald Trump’s first year in office was marked by a series of escalating launches, accompanied by a war of words between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Pyongyang had been biding its time since the new administration took office, not even officially acknowledging its existence until last week. South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the North launched two short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, known as the East Sea in Korea, from South Hamgyong province. They travelled 450 kilometres and reached a maximum altitude of 60 kilometres, it added, without specifying their type more precisely.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was unequivocal, telling reporters: “North Korea launched two ballistic missiles.” It had been a year since the last such incident, he added, saying: “This threatens the peace and security of our country and the region. It is also a violation of the UN resolution.” Tokyo said they came down outside the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

North Korea is banned from developing any ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions, and is under multiple international sanctions over its weapons programmes. It has made rapid progress in its capabilities under Kim, testing missiles capable of reaching the entire continental United States as tensions mounted in 2017.

Trump and Kim embarked on an extraordinary diplomatic relationship, holding two headline-grabbing summits in Singapore and Vietnam. The United States pulled back on some joint military exercises with South Korea while the North froze intercontinental ballistic missile tests. The February 2019 Hanoi summit broke up over sanctions relief and what North Korea would be willing to give up in return.

Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests last year that it called “long-range artillery” but others described as short-range ballistic missiles. The launch comes after Pyongyang fired two short-range, non-ballistic missiles in a westerly direction. It followed joint exercises by the US and South Korean militaries and a visit to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to discuss alliance and security issues.

During their trip to Seoul and Tokyo, Blinken repeatedly stressed the importance of denuclearising North Korea. Biden administration officials say they have sought to reach out to Pyongyang through several channels but have received no response so far. They are now finalising a strategy that the White House will discuss with Japanese and South Korean security officials next week.

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