North Korea launches missile in 14th test so far this year

North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward its eastern waters on Wednesday, South Korean and Japanese officials said, days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible pace” and threatened to use them against rivals.

The launch, the North’s 14th round of weapons firing this year, also came six days before a new conservative South Korean president takes office for a single five-year term.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement that the missile was fired from the North’s capital region and flew to the waters off its eastern coast. It called North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches “a grave threat” that would undermine international peace and security and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning any ballistic launch by the North.

South Korea’s JCS chairman, Won In-choul, held a video conference about the launch with Gen. Paul LaCamera, an American general who heads the South Korea-U.S. combined forces command in Seoul, and they agreed to maintain a solid joint defence posture.

Japan also detected the North Korean launch and quickly condemned it.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is shown March 20 in Seoul. Yoon, to be inaugurated early next week, condemned the North Korean action. (Jung Yeon-le/Getty Images)

“North Korea’s series of actions that threatens the peace, safety and stability of the international community are impermissible,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters during his visit to Rome.

Kishida said he’ll discuss the launch when he meets Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi later Wednesday. “Naturally, we will exchange views on the regional situation in the Indo-Pacific and East Asia, and I will thoroughly explain the reality of the region including the North Korean missile launch today, to gain understanding about the pressing situation in the East Asia,” he said.

Makoto Oniki, Japan’s vice-defence minister, said that the missile was believed to have landed in waters outside of the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone. There has been no report of damage or injury reported from vessels and aircraft in the area.

Unusually fast pace in weapons testing

It wasn’t immediately known what missile North Korea had launched. South Korea’s military said the missile flew about 470 kilometres at an apogee of 780 kilometres, while Oniki of Japan said it travelled about 500 kilometres at a maximum altitude of 800 kilometres.

North Korea’s unusually fast pace in weapons testing this year underscores its dual goal of advancing its missile programs and applying pressure on Washington over a deepening freeze in nuclear negotiations, experts say.

U.S. soldiers are shown atthe U.S. Army’s Camp Casey in Dongducheon in South Korea on Tuesday. The joint exercises with South Korean troops are a source of agitation for the North Korean dictator. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

There are also signs that the North is preparing for a nuclear test at its remote northeastern testing facility. If made, the atomic bomb test explosion by North Korea would be the seventh of its kind and the first since 2017.

Last week, Kim Jong-un showcased his most powerful nuclear-capable missiles targeting both the United States and its allies during a massive military parade in the capital, Pyongyang. During a speech at the parade, Kim said he would develop his arsenal at the “fastest possible pace” and warned that the North would preemptively use its nuclear weapons if its national interests are threatened.

It appears Kim’s brinkmanship is meant to boost his weapons arsenal and apply more pressure on Washington and Seoul to accept his country as a nuclear state and relax extensive international sanctions on it, observers say.

Wednesday’s launch came before the May 10 inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who has vowed to boost Seoul’s missile capability and solidify its military alliance with Washington to better cope with increasing North Korean nuclear threats.

Yoon’s power transition office called the latest North Korean launch “a grave provocation” and urged Pyongyang to stop acts that raise tensions and threaten international peace. It said in a statement that the Yoon government will strongly respond to North Korean provocations in close cooperation with the international community.

North Korea has a history of raising animosities with weapons tests when Seoul and Washington inaugurate new governments in an apparent bid to boost its leverage in future negotiations.

The actions of the U.S. administration under Joe Biden on North Korea have so far been limited to largely symbolic sanctions and offers of open-ended talks. North Korea has rejected the administration’s offer for talks, saying it must first abandon its “hostile policy,” in an apparent reference to U.S.-led international sanctions and U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises.

“Like the … recent tests of at least three intercontinental ballistic missiles, this launch is a clear violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said on Wednesday.

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