North Korea has fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles into the sea in its fourth weapons test this month, South Korea’s military said, as Pyongyang continues a wave of missile launches that have triggered condemnation at the United Nations.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Monday that the North likely fired two ballistic missiles from the Sunan airport in the capital, and that they travelled 380km (236 miles) to a maximum altitude of 42km (26 miles)
Japan’s government also reported the launch and condemned the tests as a threat to the region’s peace and security.
Nobuo Kishi, the Japanese defence minister, said the missiles appeared to have landed in the ocean near North Korea’s east coast.
“It is self-evident that the aim of North Korea’s frequent missile launches is to improve their missile technology,” he told reporters.
“The repeated launching of North Korea’s ballistic missiles is a grave problem for the international community, including Japan,” Kishi added.
The United States military’s Indo-Pacific Command said it assessed that the launch did not pose an immediate threat to the US or its allies, but “these missile launches highlight the destabilising impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons programme”.
North Korea has carried out a series of launches since the start of the year, announcing last week the successful test of a hypersonic weapon observed by leader Kim Jong Un.
On Friday, it also fired two missiles from a train.
Nuclear-armed Pyongyang is banned from testing ballistic weapons by the UN, and denuclearisation talks have been stalled since 2019 when a summit between Kim and former US President Donald Trump collapsed over North Korean demands for sanctions relief.
The North Korean foreign ministry on Friday chastised the US for imposing new sanctions in response to the tests, accusing Washington of a “confrontational approach”.
The US is also urging the UN to take firmer action against North Korea over the latest tests.
Some experts say Kim is returning to his old technique of using weapons launches and threats to extract concessions from the US in any future engagements.
“They [North Korea] are very clearly developing a missile force and Kim Jong Un wants to test them and there’s no reason not to any more because there’s not much going on in the negotiation front,” said Robert Kelly, professor of political science and diplomacy at Pusan National University in South Korea.
“The regime in North Korea has always put its security, its own protection, ahead of the interests and welfare of its own population,” Kelly told Al Jazeera.
“North Korean elites have said for many years, going back decades, that they were interested in getting the economy off the ground, operating more functionally, and being less corrupt. But that has never really come through… North Korea has been dependent on food aid now at least since the 1990s, arguably going back further than that. Kim could change that. But it really would require a major redirection of state resources away from the military, some kind of effort to get the sanctions rolled back, and boost North Korea’s internal self-sufficiency. And the regime hasn’t done that.”
The latest launches came as North Korea, more isolated than ever under self-imposed border closings aimed at keeping COVID-19 out, appeared to be preparing to open at least some trade across its land border with China.
Chinese brokers told Reuters news agency they expect the resumption of regular trade with North Korea as soon as Monday after a North Korean train pulled into a Chinese border town on Sunday in the first such crossing since anti-coronavirus border lockdowns began in 2020.
“This timing suggests Beijing is more than complicit with Pyongyang’s provocations; China is supporting North Korea economically and coordinating with it militarily,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul told the BBC.
Last week, China criticised the new US sanctions, but also called on all sides to act prudently and engage in dialogue to reduce tensions.
Beijing says it enforces existing international sanctions but has joined with Russia to urge the UN Security Council to ease the measures on North Korea.