SEOUL – North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile Sunday toward its eastern seas, extending a provocative streak in weapons testing as a U.S. aircraft carrier visits South Korea for joint military exercises in response to the North’s growing nuclear threat.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile launched from the western inland town of Taechon flew 600 kilometers (370 miles) cross-country on a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers (37 miles) before landing in waters off North Korea’s eastern coast.
South Korea’s presidential office said National Security Director Kim Sung-han called an emergency National Security Council meeting where members denounced the launch as a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and accused the North of raising tensions in the region.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launch did not pose an “immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies,” but still highlighted the destabilizing impact of North Korea's illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The launch came as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group arrived in South Korea for the two countries’ joint military exercises that aim to show their strength against growing North Korean threats.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said its nuclear envoy Kim Gunn held telephone calls with Sung Kim, U.S. President Joe Biden’s special representative for North Korea, and Funakoshi Takehiro, director-general for Asian and Oceanian affairs at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, to discuss trilateral cooperation in face of North Korean threats.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement Tokyo is “doing its utmost” to gather information on North Korea’s launch and confirm the safety of ships and aircraft, although there were no immediate reports of damages.
The North Korean threat is also expected to be a key agenda when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits South Korea next week after attending the state funeral in Tokyo of slain former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
North Korea has dialed up its testing activities to a record pace in 2022, testing more than 30 ballistic weapons, including its first intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017. North Korea is exploiting a divide in the United Nations Security Council that deepened over Russia’s war on Ukraine to speed up arms development.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has punctuated his weapons tests with repeated threats that the North would proactively use its nuclear weapons when threatened, increasing security concerns for its conventionally armed rival South Korea.
The flight details announced by Seoul’s military suggest that North Korea could have tested a nuclear-capable short-range weapon modeled after Russia’s Iskander missiles, which travel at relatively low altitudes and are designed to be maneuverable in flight, making them harder to be intercepted by missile defenses.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, said it was notable that the missile flew 600 kilometers (370 miles) from its Taechon launch point — roughly the distance to South Korea's southern port Busan, where the Reagan arrived Friday.
The Iskander-like missiles are part of a growing arsenal of short-range, solid-fuel systems North Korea has been developing since 2019. The North describes some of those weapons as “tactical," which experts say communicate a threat to arm them with small battlefield nukes and proactively use them during conflicts to blunt the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States, which stations about 28,500 troops in the South.
North Korea has so far rejected U.S. and South Korean calls to return to nuclear diplomacy, which have been stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of U.S.-led sanctions against the North and the North’s disarmament steps.
The USS Reagan’s arrival in South Korea came after Kim told Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament this month that he would never abandon his nuclear weapons and missiles he needs to counter what he perceives as U.S. hostility.
Kim's speech came as North Korean legislators passed a law that enshrined its status as a nuclear power and authorized the preemptive use of nuclear weapons over a broad range of scenarios where the country or its leadership comes under threat, spelling out an escalatory nuclear doctrine.
Speaking to U.S. and South Korean troops Saturday aboard the Reagan, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said the dispatching of U.S. strategic assets to the region shows unwavering U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. He said the North would be met with an overwhelming response if it attempts to use nuclear weapons, according to a statement by his ministry.
Sunday’s test could soon be followed with a more provocative weapons demonstration as South Korean officials said they detected signs that North Korea was preparing to test a missile system designed to be launched from submarines. The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Saturday that he was briefed on such developments before his flight back home from a visit to Canada.
On Wednesday, 38 North, a North Korea-focused website, said its analysis of commercial satellite imagery shows multiple barges and other vessels gathered at the eastern port of Sinpo, where North Korea has a major shipyard building submarines. The report said the North was possibly preparing to launch a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles.
North Korea has been pushing hard to be able to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines. Such weapons in theory would bolster North Korea’s deterrent by ensuring retaliation after absorbing a nuclear attack on land.
Ballistic missile submarines would also add a new maritime threat to the North’s growing collection of solid-fuel weapons fired from land vehicles, which are being developed with an apparent aim to overwhelm missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan.
Still, experts say the heavily sanctioned nation would need considerably more time, resources and major technological improvements to build at least several submarines that could travel quietly in seas and reliably execute strikes.
Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama contributed to the story from Tokyo.