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Nuclear-armed North Korea launched an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile and two other ballistic missiles on Wednesday, South Korea’s military said, just a day after U.S. leader Joe Biden wrapped up his first visit to Asia as president.

Seoul said the suspected ICBM had a range of around 360 kilometers, hitting an altitude of around 540 km. The second launch was thought to have exploded midair, while the third test was believed to have been of a short-range ballistic missile that flew 760 km and hit a maximum altitude of 60 km.

The South Korean military said all of the missiles were fired from the Sunan area of Pyongyang, where the North has been known to test its ICBMs.

In response to the launches, South Korea and the U.S. conducted surface-to-surface missile test-firings into the Sea of Japan in a bid to highlight their “rapid strike capabilities,” the Yonhap news agency reported, citing the South’s military.

Earlier Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi confirmed the launch of two apparent ballistic missiles, adding that it was possible that more had been fired.

“The missile launches, coming immediately after the Japan-U.S. summit and ‘Quad’ meeting, is a clear provocation and absolutely unacceptable,” Kishi said, referring to the grouping of four Indo-Pacific nations — Japan, Australia, India and the U.S.

Officials in Tokyo were also looking at the possibility that at least one of the weapons was an ICBM, he said, adding that the North’s record-setting pace of missile tests this year remain a “threat to regional and international peace and stability.”

Kishi said the final missile launched had also traveled on an “irregular trajectory,” an indication that the test may have been of a weapon designed to evade defenses.

Both missiles appeared to have splashed down outside of the country’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its coast, he added.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the State Guesthouse in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL/ VIA AFP-JIJI
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the State Guesthouse in Tokyo on Monday. | POOL/ VIA AFP-JIJI

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, wrote on Twitter that the “big gap between launches” suggests the tests were of something bigger than a multiple-launch rocket system, which the North has tested in recent years.

Ahead of Biden’s visit, officials in the U.S., South Korea and Japan had said that Pyongyang could launch an ICBM, stage a nuclear test — or both — even as a COVID-19 crisis grips the isolated country.

On the first leg of his Asia trip, Biden traveled to South Korea from Friday to Sunday, where he met with new President Yoon Suk-yeol.

During the visit, Biden and Yoon agreed to discuss expanding joint military drills that the North views as a rehearsal for invasion.

They also agreed during summit talks on Saturday to further strengthen deterrence against the North Korean threat, stressing that trilateral cooperation with Japan was key, according to their joint statement.

The latest test comes after South Korean officials said that the North had completed preparations for a nuclear test and that it was gauging the timing of conducting a blast.

On Wednesday, South Korean deputy national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo said that the North had tested a nuclear detonation device, apparently in preparation for its seventh nuclear test. Kim said that while Seoul did not believe a test would happen in the next day or two, it “certainly” could happen after that.

North Korea’s last weapons test before Wednesday’s came on May 12, when it fired three ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in an apparent show of strength after the isolated country reported a COVID-19 outbreak for the first time.

On Wednesday, the country reported 115,970 new “fever” patients — and no new deaths for a second consecutive day — according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The total number of infections has topped 3 million, it said.

U.S., South Korean and Japanese officials have hinted at an interest in assisting the isolated North amid the COVID-19 outbreak, though it’s unclear if Pyongyang would be interested in accepting such aid.

Denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have been stalled since 2019. 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.”

But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has appeared uninterested in Biden’s pitch, condemning the U.S. offers as a “petty trick.”

Instead, Kim has vowed to double down on developing his nuclear and missile programs, warning late last month that Pyongyang could “pre-emptively” use its nuclear weapons to counter hostile forces, days after delivering a fiery speech at a rare large-scale military parade that showcased the country’s increasingly advanced arsenal.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said that the response to the latest North Korean ICBM test — believed to be its first since late March — would likely be muted.

“Owing to Russia’s war in Ukraine and Beijing’s rivalry diplomacy with Washington, it is difficult to expect a new United Nations Security Council resolution in response to North Korea’s tests,” Easley said.

However, Easley highlighted Washington’s “renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific,” including Biden’s visit to Asia and his administration’s mix of sanctions enforcement, bolstered deterrence and a stated willingness to engage with Pyongyang as a positive development.

But he disagreed with criticism from some that the White House’s North Korea policy amounted to a waiting game for the U.S. and its allies.

“Although there is little chance of preventing North Korea’s tests and returning to negotiations with Pyongyang anytime soon, increasing U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation would make a meaningful difference in East Asia’s security landscape.”

In addition, he pointed to a lesson learned by the White House amid the war in Ukraine.

“Similar to how the Biden administration has done against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, it is making public some intelligence about North Korea’s test preparations in effort to put Pyongyang on the back foot, rally allies and partners to enforce sanctions and avoid appearing caught off guard by provocations that Washington is unable to prevent,” Easley said.

Information from Reuters added

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