North Korea has fired a suspected ballistic missile, South Korea’s military has said, just days before Seoul’s presidential election.
Japan also confirmed the launch on Saturday, saying the missile flew at a maximum altitude of 550km (340 miles) and a distance of 300km (170 miles), defence minister Nobuo Kishi said.
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The “extremely high frequency” of Pyongyang’s weapons tests this year were “a threat to the region” and were “absolutely unacceptable”, said Kishi.
From hypersonic to medium-range ballistic missiles, Pyongyang test-fired a string of weaponry in January and last week launched what it claimed was a component of a “reconnaissance satellite” – although Seoul described it as another ballistic missile.
Despite biting international sanctions over its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has ignored United States offers of talks since high-profile negotiations between leader Kim Jong Un and then-US President Donald Trump collapsed in 2019.
Instead of diplomacy, Pyongyang has doubled down on Kim’s drive to modernise its military, warning in January that it could abandon a self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
South Korea’s military said it detected a presumed “ballistic missile launched into the East Sea from the Sunan area around 08:48 am”.
South Korea’s national security council condemned Pyongyang’s “unprecedented repeated firing of ballistic missiles”, which goes against peace on the Korean Peninsula and the international community, the presidential Blue House said in a statement.
Seoul will “even more thoroughly monitor North Korea’s nuclear and missile-related facilities, such as Yongbyon and Punggye-ri”, the statement added.
The North’s sabre-rattling comes just four days before South Korea votes for a new president.
“Looks like Kim is feeling that [South Korean President Moon Jae-in] did not do much after the Hanoi summit collapsed,” said North Korean studies scholar Ahn Chan-il, referring to the final meeting between Kim and Trump.
Pyongyang has clearly “decided to prioritise their own military agenda regardless of what South Korea thinks”.
Analysts had widely predicted Pyongyang would seek to capitalise on the United States’ distraction over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with more tests.
“With these tests, North Korea seems to be saying North Korea is different from Ukraine, reminding the world that it has its own nuclear weaponry system,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“It’s yet another demand for Washington to abolish the so-called ‘hostile’ policies against Pyongyang.”
It is an assessment that analyst Jean Lee, a fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center, agreed with.
“The timing of North Korea’s missile testing may seem odd to us, given the global focus on Ukraine,” Lee said on Twitter.
“But it makes perfect sense in North Korea, where scientists are focused on perfect new weapons for Kim to show off at a big military parade in mid-April.”
‘Meddled’ in Ukraine
The US State Department condemned the latest launch as a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which have imposed sanctions on North Korea over its weapons programmes.
North Korea last month accused the United States of being the “root cause of the Ukraine crisis” saying Washington “meddled” in the internal affairs of other countries when it suited them but condemned legitimate “self-defensive measures”.
North Korea is preparing to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of late founder Kim Il Sung in April, which experts say Pyongyang could use as an opportunity to carry out a major weapons test.
Recent satellite images analysed by specialist website 38 North suggest the country may be preparing a military parade to showcase its weapons to mark the key anniversary.
“Pyongyang is likely to focus on testing its reconnaissance satellites and ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] until April,” said Cheong Seong-chang of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute.