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North Korea continued its frenetic pace of weapons tests on Tuesday, firing off an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) into the Sea of Japan, as campaigning for a crucial Oct. 31 Lower House election kicked off and nuclear envoys from the U.S., South Korea and Japan held talks.

The South Korean military said the test of one ballistic missile had been launched from the vicinity of Sinpo, the location of North Korea’s submarine base and the facilities where it tested SLBMs in the past.

It was not clear if the test had been conducted from a submarine or a submerged barge, as in most of its prior SLBM tests. The North typically releases details of its launches the day after tests.

“Our military detected one unidentified short-range ballistic missile presumed to be an SLBM fired by North Korea,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. The missile traveled about 590 kilometers at an apogee of 60 km, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing an unidentified source.

The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command also confirmed a “North Korean ballistic missile launch” and urged Pyongyang to halt “further destabilizing acts.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters in the city of Fukushima that the North had launched two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan — forcing him to cancel campaign events for the day and return to Tokyo to oversee the government’s response.

Speaking to reporters later in the day, the new prime minister confirmed that an SLBM may have been tested, but said Japan was continuing to analyze the launch.

“North Korea’s remarkable nuclear and missile technology development is something we cannot overlook,” he told reporters later in the afternoon. “Amid this situation, I’ve already given instructions to revise our country’s National Security Strategy, including considering the option of acquiring the capability to strike enemy bases.”

Asked about the discrepancy between the South Korean report of one test and the Japanese side’s confirmation of two missiles, Kishida stressed that he had been briefed of two launches.

Fumio Kishida | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Fumio Kishida | POOL / VIA REUTERS

The prime minister declined to comment on the timing of the test, but security issues — including North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile programs and China’s growing military assertiveness — were expected to be on voters’ minds as they head to the polls.

Speaking in the evening, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the first missile had fallen outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, an area 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores, and that it was still analyzing the second. He said the first missile had traveled about 600 km at an apogee of 50 km.

North Korea fired two apparent ballistic missiles into Japan’s EEZ last month, an act then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga slammed as “outrageous.”

Just ahead of Tuesday’s launch, the top nuclear envoys from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. gathered for talks in Washington on the North Korean nuclear issue, with U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Sung Kim reiterating that the United States harbors “no hostile intent” toward Pyongyang and that it was “prepared to work cooperatively with” the country on humanitarian concerns.

“We will seek diplomacy with the DPRK to make tangible progress that increases the security of the United States and our allies,” Kim said, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This includes considering potential engagement with the DPRK to reduce tensions.”

Kim is set to visit Seoul later this week to continue discussions on North Korea.

Tuesday’s test also came as the three countries’ intelligence chiefs held a closed-door trilateral meeting in Seoul to discuss the North and other pending issues, Yonhap reported.

U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Sung Kim (right) watches as his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, speaks to reporters outside of the State Department in Washington on Monday. | AFP-JIJI
U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Sung Kim (right) watches as his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk, speaks to reporters outside of the State Department in Washington on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was likely fostering the development of SLBMs in order to secure a more survivable nuclear deterrent that would allow the country to “blackmail its neighbors and the United States.”

“There’s also an element of Pyongyang racing to keep up with Seoul as South Korea has recently tested an SLBM of its own and is planning an ambitious space launch this week,” Easley noted.

North Korea’s SLBM is probably far from being operationally deployed with a nuclear warhead, he added, “but Kim cannot politically afford appearing to fall behind in a regional arms race.”

Last month, South Korea joined an elite club when it successfully tested an SLBM, becoming the first country without nuclear weapons to develop the system. That development came as Seoul continues to bolster and modernize its missile and space capabilities.

The North has not tested an SLBM since October 2019, but it displayed its new Pukguksong-4 SLBM at a military parade in October and its Pukguksong-5 at one in January. A previously unknown smaller missile was also spotted at a rare defense exhibition in Pyongyang last week.

Pyongyang is also building a new submarine capable of launching the missiles, which — while noisy and easily detectable far from its shores — would give the country another means of delivering its weapons and confounding Japanese, South Korean and American defense officials.

A defense exhibition in Pyongyang earlier this month | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
A defense exhibition in Pyongyang earlier this month | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

In recent weeks, North Korea has tested a range of increasingly powerful new weapons systems. These have included a long-range cruise missile believed to be capable of delivering a nuclear bomb to Japan, as well as a train-launched weapon and what the North said was a hypersonic gliding vehicle. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.

In a speech at the defense exhibition last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered a hint of what to expect in the coming months.

Addressing top North Korean officials with the regime’s most advanced new weapons looming nearby, Kim spoke of a need to “steadfastly safeguard peace” in response to the United States’ “hostile policies” and South Korea’s growing military power by “steadily developing” what he repeatedly called a “powerful defense capability.”

Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy earlier this year, President Joe Biden’s administration has repeatedly said that it harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet unconditionally, with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Kim, however, has condemned the U.S. offer of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

Negotiations with the North over its nuclear program have been stalled since the breakdown of working-level talks in October 2019. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, held three meetings with Kim in a failed attempt to reach a wide-ranging denuclearization deal.

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