North Korea on Tuesday fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile into its eastern sea, its second launch in a week, following leader Kim Jong-un’s calls to expand its nuclear weapons program in defiance of international opposition.
The launches follow a series of weapons tests in 2021 that underscored how North Korea is continuing to expand its military capabilities during a self-imposed pandemic lockdown and deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea fired what likely was a ballistic missile from the area of its northern Jagang province. It said the weapon flew 700 kilometres at a maximum speed of around Mach 10 before landing in waters off its eastern coast.
It said the launch was a “clear violation” of UN Security Council resolutions and demonstrated a more advanced capability than North Korea’s previous launch last week. The North’s state media described that launch as a successful test of a hypersonic missile, a type of weaponry it claimed to have first tested in September.
South Korean officials didn’t provide a specific assessment of the missile type, but some experts said North Korea may have tested its purported hypersonic missile again in response to the South Korean military playing down its previous test.
North Korea didn’t immediately comment on Tuesday’s test.
Japan’s Defence Ministry said the suspected ballistic missile landed outside the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said officials were checking the safety of ships and aircraft around Japan, but there were no immediate reports of disruptions or damage.
“It is extremely regrettable that North Korea has continued to fire” missiles so soon after the UN Security Council discussed its response to the North’s earlier launch, Kishida said.
South Korea expresses ‘strong regret’ over tests
The Security Council held closed-door consultations on Monday on last week’s launch, but took no action. Ahead of the talks, the U.S. and five allies issued a statement urging North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
South Korea’s presidential office said Tuesday’s launch was discussed at an emergency National Security Council meeting, which expressed “strong regret” over North Korea’s continuing tests and urged it to return to talks.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launch did not pose an “immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies” but underlined the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s weapons programs.
The launch came six days after North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea in what it later described as a successful test of a hypersonic missile.
Seoul’s defence ministry said after that test that North Korea had exaggerated its capabilities and had tested a conventional ballistic missile the South was capable of intercepting. The ministry said it doubts that North Korea has acquired the technologies needed for a hypersonic weapon.
Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said the North’s leadership would have been “enraged” by South Korea’s assessment of last week’s launch and may have planned a series of tests in a push to make its threat credible.
Economy strained by sanctions, pandemic
Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, could pose a crucial challenge to missile defence systems because of their speed and manoeuvrability. Such weapons were on a wish-list of sophisticated military assets Kim unveiled early last year along with multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fuelled long-range missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
Experts say North Korea is likely years away from acquiring a credible hypersonic system.
North Korea’s previous test on Jan. 5 came days after Kim vowed during a key political conference to bolster his military forces, even as the nation grapples with pandemic-related difficulties that have further strained its economy, crippled by U.S.-led sanctions over its nuclear program.
The economic setbacks have left Kim with little to show for his diplomacy with former U.S. President Donald Trump, which derailed after their second meeting in 2019 when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.