North Korea launched two apparent short-range ballistic missiles on Friday, the South’s military said, hours after Pyongyang vowed a “stronger and certain reaction” to U.S. sanctions over a spate of recent launches.

The South Korean military said the two missiles had been fired eastward from North Pyongan province, which borders China, and that they flew around 430 km (270 miles) at an altitude of 36 km. It said it had detected one of the missile launches at 2:41 p.m and the other at 2:52 p.m.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, meanwhile, confirmed the launch of at least one apparent ballistic missile, saying that it flew around 400 km, presuming the trajectory was standard, and hit a peak altitude of around 50 km. The missile was believed to have fallen into waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its coast into the Sea of Japan.

“The recent repeated launches of ballistic missiles and other missiles by North Korea are a serious problem for the entire international community, including Japan,” Kishi said. “We strongly condemn this as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

The launches come just days after the North claimed to have successfully tested a maneuverable “hypersonic glide vehicle” that traveled 1,000 km away, as Pyongyang continues to make progress in developing weapons capable of evading missile defenses.

The Japanese Defense Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office were working to collect more information on the latest move by the nuclear-armed North.

A day earlier, the U.S. Treasury Department slapped sanctions on five North Koreans living overseas — one in Russia and four in China — for aiding the country’s weapons programs.

In a fiery response, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement earlier Friday that the pursuit of its new hypersonic missiles are a “legitimate right.”

“The U.S. is intentionally escalating the situation even with the activation of independent sanctions, not content with referring the DPRK’s just activity to the U.N. Security Council,” the ministry said, using the acronym for the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If the U.S. adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take stronger and certain reaction to it,” it said.

North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear tests are banned under U.N. Security Council resolutions, though Pyongyang has steadfastly flouted these along with tough sanctions slapped on the country for its behavior.

In recent months, 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 a new submarine-launched ballistic missile. All are believed to represent progress in Pyongyang’s quest to defeat missile defenses.

The renewed pace of the country’s weapons testing, and its development of missiles that can evade defenses, has triggered concern in Tokyo, with top officials — including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Kishi — repeatedly suggesting Japan could acquire a strike capability as a means of deterring attacks, a move that would represent a major shift for the country’s defense posture.

Speaking during a news conference ahead of the latest launch on Friday, Kishi refrained from discussing Japan’s capabilities for intercepting North Korea’s latest missiles, but did note the worrying trend that Pyongyang’s growing weapons prowess represents.

“In general terms, I think it is true that North Korea is developing missile technology that will make interception difficult, and I believe that Japan needs to take measures to deal with such a situation,” he said.

Kishi reiterated that Japan would continue to consider a range of options, including a strike capability, to bolster its defenses and deterrent effect.

Denuclearization talks between the North and the United States have been at a standstill since 2019, after then-U.S. President Donald Trump held three meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Following the conclusion of a lengthy review of the United States’ North Korea policy earlier this year, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has repeatedly said that his administration harbors no hostile intent toward Pyongyang and is prepared to meet “unconditionally,” with a goal of “the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Kishida has also said he is open to an “unconditional” meeting with North Korea leader

Kim, however, has condemned the offers of dialogue as a “petty trick.”

In an interview Thursday with MSNBC, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the U.S. calls for dialogue, calling the renewed missile tests, “profoundly destabilizing” and “dangerous.”

Blinken also offered a rationale for the spate of launches — an apparent need to return the long-stalled issue to the headlines.

“I think some of this is the North Korean trying to get attention,” he said. “It’s done that in the past; it’ll probably continue to do that. But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea.”

Some observers urged caution over the latest launches.

“North Korea is trying to lay a trap for the Biden administration,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “It has queued up missiles that it wants to test anyway and is responding to U.S. pressure with additional provocations in an effort to extort concessions.”

After officially observing a missile test on Tuesday for the first time since March 2020, North Korea’s Kim urged military scientists to “further accelerate the efforts to steadily build up the country’s strategic military muscle both in quality and quantity and further modernize the army.”

During a Workers’ Party meeting in January last year, Kim outlined a five-year program, vowing to make more sophisticated short-range nuclear missiles, hypersonic missiles, large intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched long-range missiles, as well as to place military spy satellites into orbit.

Easley said it was unclear if the North would continue to up the ante with further missile tests as the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics moves closer. China — the North’s patron and sole defense ally — would not look kindly on weapons tests amid its display of soft power that would come with a successful Olympics amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 is also believed to have hit the North, though it has not officially confirmed any cases, forcing the already isolated country to close its borders early on in the pandemic in 2020.

“Pyongyang has little room for escalation because of its internal challenges and its need for restraint during the Beijing Olympics given heavy reliance on China,” Easley said. “So Washington and its allies should call the Kim regime’s bluff by increasing U.S.-South Korea-Japan security cooperation and strengthening enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.