North Korea fired what appeared to be two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday — an act Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga slammed as “outrageous” — just days after testing a new weapon believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to most of Japan.
The spate of tests in the span of less than a week have served to highlight that the North Korean nuclear issue can bubble to the surface at any time, despite the United States’ push to focus on China.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the missiles appeared to be ballistic. Initially, it said they were not believed to have landed in Japanese territorial waters or its exclusive economic zone, an area 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores. But Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi walked back this claim late Wednesday, telling reporters that, based on further analysis, the missiles were estimated to have splashed down within its EEZ, making them the first to land that close to Japan since last October.
The South Korean military also confirmed the launch of two short-range ballistic missiles, saying that they had flown about 800 kilometers — the farthest distance a North Korean missile is believed to have traveled since 2019 — at a maximum altitude of 60 km.
The launches were the nuclear-armed North’s first ballistic missile tests since late March, when it fired off two short-range weapons, and came just before South Korea successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile for the first time later in the day.
Suga, speaking at a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday, the fourth anniversary of when a North Korean missile flew over Japan, condemned the launch, calling it an “outrageous threat to peace and security in the region.”
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that the North’s “recent repeated launches of ballistic missiles and other projectiles are a serious problem for Japan and the international community as a whole.”
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command, meanwhile, said the move “highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program.” DPRK is the acronym of the North’s formal name.
The move also coincided with a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Seoul for meetings with his South Korean counterpart. Speaking before the news emerged, Wang said that he hoped that all countries would work toward “peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” the Yonhap news agency reported.
“For example, not only the North, but also other countries are engaging in military activities,” he said, in an apparent reference to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. “Having said this, we all have to work together toward the resumption of dialogue.”
Although Beijing is Pyongyang’s sole diplomatic ally and its main patron for trade and aid, the North shuttered its borders early on in the COVID-19 pandemic last year and has yet to allow significant amounts of goods to trickle through.
The latest launches come just days after Pyongyang announced Monday that it had developed yet another weapon — a “new-type, long-range” cruise missile potentially capable of evading missile defenses — that could put most of Japan within striking distance.
It called the cruise missile, which it said it had test-fired twice over the weekend, “a strategic weapon of great significance.” State media said the missiles had traveled for nearly two hours over North Korean land and air, ultimately hitting targets 1,500 km away.
“What makes this test provocative is North Korea’s public statement that these cruise missiles are a ‘strategic’ weapon, implying an intention to miniaturize nuclear warheads to fit on them,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “If that is the case, then the test is deserving of an international effort to strengthen sanctions.
“However, Pyongyang may be calculating that Washington will take a weaker approach, given strained U.S. relations with China and Russia and those countries’ general opposition to increasing sanctions.”
Under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is prohibited from developing or testing ballistic missiles, but the measures do not cover cruise missiles.
Later Wednesday, U.S. special envoy for North Korea Sung Kim met with his Japanese counterpart, Director-General for Asian and Oceanian Affairs Takehiro Funakoshi, to discuss the latest ballistic missile launches, with both sides agreeing that they had violated the U.N. resolutions.
It’s unclear how the spate of missile launches will impact deadlocked denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea, which have been stalled since 2019, largely over disagreements on the easing of crushing U.N. and unilateral sanctions that have suffocated the North Korean economy.
After completing a monthslong policy review earlier this year, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden said that it would aim for a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” seeking the North’s eventual denuclearizaton, adding that it was prepared to meet anywhere, anytime. Pyongyang has not responded to the U.S. overtures.
Although the top U.S. envoy on North Korea reiterated that stance this week, some observers have said that the administration has appeared uninterested in devoting the political capital necessary to seriously take up the issue.
“The Biden administration is busy with Afghanistan and China. It doesn’t want to tackle the North Korean issue. Even if missiles are flying, the attitude of emphasizing diplomacy won’t change,” Tetsuo Kotani, a professor of global studies at Meikai University, wrote on Twitter.
Pyongyang’s dogged pursuit of powerful new weapons despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, which analysts believe has represented the greatest threat to leader Kim Jong Un’s regime since he took power a decade ago, is perhaps indicative of its apparent desire to return the nuclear issue to the top of the U.S. agenda.
This means the U.S. or its allies relegating the issue to a lower priority would be doing so at their own peril.
“North Korea is implementing a schedule of missile development that was planned before Biden came to office,” Ewha University’s Easley said. “That schedule can be adjusted for political reasons but is primarily driven by security strategy and technical factors.”
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report
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