North Korea conducts ballistic missile launch ahead of South Korean inauguration
North Korea fired a ballistic missile off its east coast Saturday, a provocative move days before South Korea’s newly elected president Yoon Suk Yeol is to be sworn into office.
The short-range missile launch, fired into the Sea of Japan, is believed to have come from a submarine, which is harder to detect and follows another ballistic missile test the pariah nation launched Wednesday. The launch does not pose an immediate threat, military officials in the United States said.
“We are aware of the ballistic missile launch and are consulting closely with our allies and partners,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement. “While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program. The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.”
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The launch on Saturday reached flew roughly 37 miles high and traveled over 373-mile before crashing into the Sea of Japan, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Officials from the U.S., Japan, and South Korea have condemned the missile launch, with South Korea’s military dubbing the move as “seriously threatening.”
North Korea most recently tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile last October. The difficulties with detecting SLBMs make them optimal for surprise attacks.
Military officials in South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have expressed concern that North Korea is gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017 at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The site had been officially closed since 2018. Kim pledged to expand the country’s nuclear capabilities at the “fastest possible speed” during a military parade last month.
“The United States assesses that [North Korea] is preparing its Punggye-ri test site and could be ready to conduct a test there as early as this month, which would be its seventh test,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter said Friday, per the Washington Post.
Leader Kim Jong Un has been ramping up missile tests in recent months. So far, the country has launched 15 known missile tests, the New York Times reported, marking a significant step up from the eight tests it conducted in 2021 and four in 2020.
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There was a brief lull toward the end of the Trump administration during negotiations over the nuclear program, but those discussions collapsed in 2019 due to disagreements about sanctions relief. President Joe Biden has signaled openness toward returning to the negotiating table with the pariah state.
Biden is expected to visit South Korea later this month and meet with Yoon, who is set to take office Tuesday and has advocated more of a hard-line approach with South Korea’s belligerent neighbor. North Korea’s state-run Uriminzokkiri media outlet has denounced Yoon as being “pro-U.S.” and harboring a “confrontational” mindset against North Korea, per the Washington Post.