North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Saturday, Seoul said, its second missile launch in three days, after the United States warned that Pyongyang may be preparing for a nuclear test.
Pyongyang has dramatically stepped up its anti-sanctions missile launches this year, conducting 15 weapons tests since January, including firing a full-range intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time since 2017.
The latest launch comes just days before South Korea swears in a hawkish new president Yoon Suk-yeol, who has vowed to crack down on Pyongyang and bolster the US security alliance.
Satellite images indicate North Korea may also be preparing to resume nuclear testing, with the US State Department warning on Friday that a test could take place “as early as this month”.
“Our military detected at around 2:07 p.m. (0507 GMT) a short-range ballistic missile suspected to be an SLBM fired from the waters off Sinpo in southern Hamgyong,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff Seoul (JCS) said. in a press release.
Sinpo is a major shipyard in North Korea and satellite photos have shown submarines at the facility in the past.
The missile traveled 600 kilometers (372 miles) at a maximum altitude of 60 kilometres, the JCS added, a distance that indicates it was a short-range ballistic missile.
It landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Tokyo Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said.
He added that the “extremely high frequency” of testing by North Korea this year was “absolutely unacceptable”.
Pyongyang’s “remarkable development of nuclear and missile-related technology” is a regional and global security risk, he said, adding that Japan also believes “North Korea will be ready to test nuclear as of this month”.
– In search of the “advantage” –
Last month, while overseeing a huge military parade, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to develop his nuclear forces “at the fastest possible speed” and warned of possible strikes “pre-emptive”.
Pyongyang is “preparing its Punggye-ri test site and may be ready to test there as early as this month,” the US State Department said on Friday.
The test could coincide with US President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan and South Korea later this month, or Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, the State Department added.
“The North is showing that its talk about nuclear force is not without substance,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies.
“Recent launches show a strategic intent to gain the upper hand with the new government in Seoul,” especially ahead of Biden’s visit, he said.
North Korea carried out six nuclear tests before embarking on high-level diplomacy with the United States in 2018 and 2019, with former President Donald Trump meeting with Kim four times before talks broke down. Diplomacy has languished ever since.
Repeated negotiations to convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons came to nothing.
“Instead of accepting invitations for dialogue, the Kim regime appears to be preparing a tactical nuclear warhead test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“A seventh nuclear test would be the first since September 2017 and would increase tensions on the Korean peninsula, increasing the chances of miscalculation and miscommunication between the Kim regime and the new Yoon administration,” Easley added.
– ‘Servant’ –
South Korea’s conventional military capability exceeds that of the North, and Yoon has called for more US military assets to be deployed in the South, a topic likely to be on the agenda during Biden’s visit to Seoul. .
South Korea tested its own SLBM last year, putting it among a small group of nations that have such technology.
North Korea’s “underwater technology probably doesn’t allow staying at sea for long periods of time while avoiding detection,” Easley said.
“But the ability to launch ballistic missiles from a submarine would further complicate neutralization and defense missions against North Korean nuclear forces,” he added.
On Wednesday, North Korea tested what Seoul and Tokyo said was a ballistic missile, although state media in Pyongyang – which usually reports on weapons tests – did not comment on the event.
For five years under President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has pursued a policy of engagement with Pyongyang. But for new leader Yoon, this “subordinate” approach has been a clear failure.
Analysts said the series of missile launches indicate North Korea’s Kim may be warning Seoul that he is not open to dialogue with South Korea’s new government on Yoon’s terms.