North Korea fired a pair of ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, days after Pyongyang announced it had launched a long-range cruise missile.
The North has been building up its weapons programme in recent years after talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes broke down in 2019 over sanctions relief.
The nuclear-armed North fired “two unidentified ballistic missiles” from its central inland area into the sea off its east coast, the JCS said in a statement.
The missiles were fired just after 12.30pm (03:30 GMT), flying 800 km (497 miles) to a maximum altitude of 60 km (37 miles).
“South Korean and US intelligence agencies are conducting detailed analysis,” they added.
Japan’s Coast Guard also reported an object – possibly a ballistic missile – landing outside its exclusive economic zone.
“The firings threaten the peace and safety of Japan and the region and are absolutely outrageous,” Suga said. “The government of Japan is determined to further step up our vigilance and surveillance to be prepared for any contingencies,” he said.
Both Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in convened sessions of their national security councils to discuss the launches, according to their offices.
The foreign ministers of South Korea and China were holding talks in Seoul on Wednesday amid concerns over the recent missile test and the denuclearisation negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, which have been stalled since 2019.
The North is under international sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, and China is its only major ally.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North appeared determined to proceed with its military modernisation, but the timing of the test could make “Beijing appear unwilling or unable to restrain Pyongyang”. It also highlighted “China’s responsibility to do more to safeguard stability in Northeast Asia,” he added in an email.
The ballistic missile tests, banned under UN sanctions, are North Korea’s first since March this year.
The US military’s Indo-Pacific Command said it was aware of the missile launch and said it posed “no immediate threat” to the US, its military or allies.
“The missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program. The US commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad,” it said in a statement.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Wednesday’s launch “looks like North Korea’s indirect message and even request to Beijing for the Korean peninsula to be addressed as a central agenda issue for China”.
“At the same time, Pyongyang seems to be claiming and stressing that North Korea is taking the lead in the Korean peninsula issue,” he told AFP news agency.
On Monday, North Korea said it tested what state media described as a “strategic” long range cruise missile with analysts suggesting the weapon could be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. State media said the missile flew about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles).
Nuclear diplomacy between the United States and North Korea stalled in 2019, when the US rejected the North’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling an ageing nuclear facility.
The Biden administration announced it had completed a review of North Korea policy in May and that while denuclearisation remained a priority it would not seek any “grand bargain” with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
US envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said on Tuesday the US had no hostile intent towards Pyongyang and hopes it responds positively to offers for talks on its weapons programmes.
Meeting Wang on Wednesday, Moon asked for China’s support to restart dialogue, saying North Korea had not been responding to offers from either Seoul or Washington for talks or engagement such as humanitarian aid, Moon’s spokesperson said.
The nuclear envoys of South Korea, Japan, and the United States were meeting in Tokyo this week as well.
Kim’s government has so far rejected dialogue and threatened to accelerate its weapons development, accusing the US of “hostility” despite its diplomatic efforts.