North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a ceremony in Pyongyang, North Korea. File/Reuters
North Korea launched at least two projectiles suspected by Japan to be ballistic missiles on Thursday, officials in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington said, the first such test reported since US President Joe Biden took office in January.
North Korea’s ballistic missiles are banned under United Nations Security Council Resolutions, and if the launch is confirmed it would represent a new challenge to Biden’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang, which have so far been rebuffed.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported at least two “unidentified projectiles” were fired into the sea from North Korea’s South Hamgyong Province on the east coast.
South Korean and US intelligence agencies were analysing the data of the launch for additional information, the JCS said in a statement.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House will convene an emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss the launches.
US officials confirmed North Korea carried out a new projectile launch, without offering details on the number or kind of projectile detected.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the projectiles were two ballistic missiles, which fell outside the Japanese exclusive economic zone.
Suga said he would “thoroughly discuss” North Korea issues including the launches with Biden during his visit next month.
Earlier the Japanese coast guard warned ships against coming close to any fallen objects and instead asked them to provide information to the coast guard.
Over the weekend North Korea fired two short-range cruise missiles, US and South Korean officials said, but Biden played down the those tests as “business as usual” and officials in Washington said they were still open to dialogue with Pyongyang.
Ballistic missile tests would be a “step up” from the weekend test, and allow North Korea to improve its technology, send a proportionate response to US-South Korea military drills, and signal to the United States that it is improving its arsenal, said Vipin Narang, a nuclear affairs expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
The test launches should not torpedo diplomatic efforts, but they are a reminder of the cost of the failure to secure a deal with Pyongyang, he said.
“Every day that passes without a deal that tries to reduce the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal is a day that it gets bigger and badder,” Narang said.
Biden’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea have gone unanswered, and Pyongyang said it would not engage until Washington dropped hostile policies, including carrying out military drills with South Korea.
North Korea has been angered by recent joint US-South Korean excerises even though they were scaled back in an effort to get nuclear talks restarted.
The administration’s North Korea policy review is in its “final stages” and would host the national security advisers of allies Japan and South Korea next week to discuss that, senior US officials said on Wednesday.
North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear and missile programs throughout 2020 in violation of UN sanctions dating back to 2006, helping fund them with about $300 million stolen through cyber hacks, according to independent UN sanctions monitors.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that North Korea had fired a suspected ballistic missile toward the sea off its east coast from a location near Sunan, where Pyongyang's international airport is located.
The early-morning launch came as the UN Security Council met in New York to discuss last week's test of what Pyongyang called a hypersonic missile, although Seoul has cast doubt on that claim.
The renewed pressure comes as the pandemic further shakes the North’s economy, which was already battered by crippling US-led sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme and decades of mismanagement by its own government.
North Korea appears to be pausing its tests during the Winter Olympics in China, its most important ally and economic lifeline. But analysts believe North Korea will dramatically increase its weapons testing after the Olympics.
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