Both North Korea and South Korea test fired ballistic missiles on Wednesday, the latest volley in an arms race that has seen both countries develop increasingly sophisticated weapons while efforts to get talks going on defusing tension prove fruitless.
South Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile(SLBM), becoming the first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a system.
South Korea President Moon was attending that test firing when word came of the North Korean launches, its first ballistic missile tests since March.
North Korea fired a pair of ballistic missiles that landed in the sea off its east coast, according to officials in South Korea and Japan, just days after it tested a cruise missile that is believed to have nuclear capabilities.
North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems amid a standoff over talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief.
The negotiations, initiated between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, have stalled since 2019.
“North Korea fired two unidentified ballistic missiles from its central inland region toward the east coast, and intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are conducting detailed analysis for further information,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
The missiles were fired just after 12:30 p.m. (0330 GMT), flying 800 km (497 miles) to a maximum altitude of 60 km (37 miles), the JCS reported.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said North Korea’s missile launches did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory, or allies, but highlight the destabilising impact of its illicit weapons programme.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the missile launch “outrageous” and strongly condemned it as a threat to peace and security in the region.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing that China hoped “relevant parties” would “exercise restraint”.
‘THE STRONGEST KOREA’
South Korea has been splurging on a range of new military systems, including ballistic missiles, submarines, and its first aircraft carrier. It has a stated policy of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
The arms race has accelerated under Moon for a number of reasons, including his push for more foreign policy autonomy, wariness of relying on the United States after Trump’s presidency and military developments in both North Korea and China, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London.
“South Korea would face many political and legal obstacles to develop nuclear weapons, both internal and external,” he said. “So it will develop all other capabilities to deter North Korea and show who the strongest Korea is.”
Officials at the SLBM test announced the development of several other advanced missiles including a supersonic cruise missile and a ballistic missile with a larger warhead.
Moon cited the nuclear-armed North’s “asymmetric capabilities” as a reason for South Korea to develop better missiles.
“Enhancing our missile capability is exactly what’s needed as deterrence against North Korea’s provocation,” he said, while stressing that the SLBM test had been planned and was not in response to the North’s launches.
Unlike the South, North Korea’s ballistic missile systems have been banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In November 2017, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the entire United States and declared it had become a nuclear power. It has since focused mainly on testing shorter-range missile and rockets.
North Korea this year declared it was seeking to miniaturise nuclear warheads, which could potentially be fitted to tactical missiles.
“North Korea continues to prioritise military modernisation,” said Leif-Eric Easley, international studies professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
The latest launch came as foreign ministers of South Korea and China held talks in Seoul amid concern over North Korea’s tests and the stalled denuclearisation negotiations. read more
North Korea said it successfully tested a new long-range cruise missile last weekend, calling it “a strategic weapon of great significance”. Analysts say that weapon could be its first cruise missile with a nuclear capability.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked about the cruise missile tests, said all parties should work to promote peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
“Not only North Korea but other countries are carrying out military activity,” he told reporters. “All of us should make efforts in a way that helps resume dialogue.”
In a meeting with Wang on Wednesday, Moon asked for China’s support to restart dialogue, saying North Korea had not been responding to South Korean and U.S. offers for talks or engagement such as humanitarian aid, Moon’s spokesperson said.
The nuclear envoys of South Korea, Japan, and the United States were meeting in Tokyo this week as well.
U.S. envoy Sung Kim said on Tuesday the United States has no hostile intent towards North Korea and hoped it would respond positively to calls for talks.
The United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programmes in exchange for sanctions relief. North Korea has refused.