North Korea fires three missiles including banned ICBM, South Korea says

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North Korea has test-fired three new missiles, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, hours after the US president concluded his trip to neighbouring Japan.

The missiles were fired in the space of less than an hour from the Sunan area of the North Korean capital Pyongyang, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.

In retaliation, the US and South Korean militaries fired two surface-to-surface missiles in what they said was a demonstration of their striking capabilities.

The first missile launch was likely an ICBM, South Korea said, that flew at 6am local time (9pm GMT) and reached a maximum altitude of 540km while travelling 360km east.

The second unidentified missile, however, failed mid-flight reaching 20km into the air and travelled around 750km. The third missile, which was identified as a short-range ballistic missile, flew 760km at a maximum altitude of 60km, Seoul said in a statement.

This was the North’s 17th round of missile tests this year and the second test of an ICBM, breaking its self-imposed 2018 moratorium on ballistic missiles.

It comes even as the country battles its first self-declared outbreak of Covid-19 infections.

US, Japan and South Korea strongly condemned Wednesday’s launches and said the three allies “remain ironclad” in their commitment to deter the North.

South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol convened an emergency national security council meeting after the launches and said Seoul had “strong and effective” responses ready to deal with any North Korean provocations.

Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida welcomes US president Joe Biden in Tokyo on 24 May (Reuters)
Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida welcomes US president Joe Biden in Tokyo on 24 May (Reuters)

“North Korea’s sustained provocations can only result in stronger and faster South Korea-US combined deterrence and can only deepen North Korea’s international isolation,” the South Korean government said in a statement. “[Our] government is maintaining constant readiness to strongly and effectively respond to any kind of NorthKorean provocation.”

Japan, which confirmed two of the tests and acknowledged the possibility of a third, condemned North Korea for pressing ahead with weapons programmes while “ignoring the people’s suffering amid the spread of the coronavirus in the country”.

Defense minister Nobuo Kishi said the launches were “an act of provocation and absolutely impermissible”. He said it is “not acceptable” as it can “threaten the peace, stability and safety of Japan and the international community”.

Washington said North Korea’s multiple ballistic launches were in violation of US security resolutions.

US Indo-Pacific Command said the missile launches highlight “the destabilising impact” of North Korea’s “illicit” weapons programme, though they didn’t pose an immediate threat to US territory and its allies.

Experts, as well as neighbouring Seoul and Tokyo, have raised concerns that the North is now poised to conduct its seventh nuclear test as it is believed to be restoring tunnels at its previously closed nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, where it has conducted six tests in the past.

“If Omicron is raging in the country, it is not the best time for Kim to take domestic political credit for a nuclear test. So declaring victory against Covid, at least in state propaganda, will probably come first,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.

“But North Korea is likely to conduct its seventh nuclear test before reengaging in diplomacy. Pyongyang is less concerned about securing external assistance to save lives and reduce hunger than it is worried about international aid contradicting its political narrative and being used as leverage against its nuclear programme.”

Wednesday’s tests came hours after Joe Biden concluded the last leg of the first Asia tour of his presidency, during which he pledged to defend allies South Korea and Japan, and discussed new measures to deter the North.

During his five-day trip, Mr Biden said the US is “prepared for anything North Korea does” as he met Mr Yoon and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida. They agreed to hold larger military drills and deploy more US strategic assets to counter the Kim Jong-un administration.

North conducted its most recent missile test before Wednesday on 12 May, the same day it admitted for the first time that coronavirus cases are spreading in the country after controversially claiming it had been Covid-free for more than two years.

North Korea has identified about three million cases of what it calls “fever” amid a lack of testing capacity, while claiming that just a small fraction had confirmed Covid-19.

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