North Korea test fires two ballistic missiles, adding to nuclear arsenal fears

·4-min read
South Koreans watched North Korea's cruise missile test on Sunday - AP
South Koreans watched North Korea's cruise missile test on Sunday - AP

North Korea test fired two ballistic missiles into the sea on Wednesday, in Pyongyang’s second major weapons test in less than a week.

The nuclear-armed country had fired "two unidentified ballistic missiles" from its central inland area into the sea off its east coast, Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, revealing that the projectiles flew around 500 miles, at a maximum altitude of around 37 miles.

"South Korean and US intelligence authorities are analysing details for additional information," they said.

The launch, shortly after midday local time, was the country’s first ballistic missile test in six months, breaking multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.

It came a day after Sung Kim, US President Joe Biden’s envoy for North Korea said the door remains open for talks, urging Pyongyang to “respond positively to our multiple offers to meet without preconditions,” as he met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Tokyo.

Mr Kim met with Noh Kyu-duk and Takehiro Funakoshi to discuss how to kickstart stalled disarmament negotiations with North Korea under the shadow of its test-launch of a new type of long-range cruise missile over the weekend.

Security forces in hazmat suits at a march in Pyongyang to mark National Day - KCNA/Reuters
Security forces in hazmat suits at a march in Pyongyang to mark National Day - KCNA/Reuters

The North’s state media called the missile a “strategic weapon of great significance” to indicate its nuclear capability. The cruise missiles flew in “pattern-8 flight orbits” for more than two hours on Saturday and Sunday, flying 930 miles over land and waters off North Korea before hitting targets.

Pictures in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Monday showed a missile exiting one of five tubes on a launch vehicle in a ball of flame, and a missile in horizontal flight.

Such a weapon would represent a marked advance in North Korea's weapons technology, analysts said, better able to avoid defence systems to deliver a warhead across the South or Japan - both of them US allies.

United Nations resolutions do not ban Pyongyang from testing cruise missiles, but analysts have warned that it signals the pariah state’s nuclear capabilities are growing.

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ankit Panda, a North Korea expert, noted that Kim Jong Un had indicated in January that such a cruise missile was under development and that it could be designed to deliver tactical nuclear weapons.

The North’s plan to develop more advanced nuclear technologies and missiles and to modernise its forces includes making smaller and lighter weapons.

“This missile would also mark the first claimed nuclear-capable cruise missile in North Korea’s inventory, underscoring its nuclear arsenal’s continued advances and the country’s growing number of nuclear delivery options,” he wrote, warning of new deterrence challenges for the US, Japan and South Korea.

Cruise missiles fly at lower altitudes, making it easier to avoid detection, while ballistic missiles can reach targets much faster.

Wednesday’s cruise missile test was a reminder from North Korea that “we are still building nuclear weapons,” tweeted Jean Lee, a North Korea analyst at the Wilson Center.

The United States Indo-Pacific Command said while the launches did not pose an immediate threat to US personnel or territory, they underscored the destabilising impact of the North's illicit weapons programme.

South Korea also successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Wednesday, becoming the first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a system as it aims to better counter North Korea's growing capabilities.

Moon Jae-in, the South’s president, attended an underwater ejection test of the SLBM aboard the new 3,000 tonne class Dosan Ahn Chang-ho submarine commissioned last month, his office said.

News about the tests broke as Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, visited Seoul. Asked about the cruise missile launches, he said he hoped for “peace and stability” on the Korean peninsula.

But he said that other countries were also “engaging in military activities,” adding that “we all have to work together toward the resumption of dialogue.”

Mr Wang made no direct mention of the recent joint US-South Korea military drills, although he warned against expanding the US-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance to include Seoul, denouncing the group as an “outdated” product of the Cold War era.

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