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North Korea fires ballistic missile amid rising tensions

The launch, the North’s 14th weapons test this year, came days after leader Kim Jong Un vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible pace.”
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/ Source: The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward its eastern waters on Wednesday, South Korean and Japanese officials said, days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible pace” and threatened to use it against rivals.

The launch, the North’s 14th round of weapons firing this year, also came six days before a new conservative South Korean president takes office for a single five-year term.

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South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement that the missile was fired from the North’s capital region and flew to the waters off its eastern coast. It called North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches “an act of grave threat” to undermine international peace and security and a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning any ballistic launch by the North.

The statement said Won In-Choul, the South Korean JCS chief, held a video conference about the launch with Gen. Paul LaCamera, an American general who heads the South Korea-U.S. combined forces command in Seoul, and that they agreed to maintain a solid joint defense posture.

Japan also detected the North Korean launch and quickly condemned it.

“North Korea’s series of actions that threatens the peace, safety and stability of the international community are impermissible,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters during his visit to Rome.

Kishida said he would discuss the launch when he met Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi later Wednesday. “Naturally, we will exchange views on the regional situation in the Indo-Pacific and East Asia, and I will thoroughly explain the reality of the region including the North Korean missile launch today, to gain understanding about the pressing situation in the East Asia,” he said.

Japanese Vice Defense Minister Makoto Oniki said the missile was believed to have landed in waters outside the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone. There has been no report of damage or injury from vessels and aircraft in the area.

It was not immediately known exactly what kind of missile North Korea launched. South Korea’s military said the missile flew about 290 miles at a maximum altitude of 485 miles, while Oniki of Japan said it traveled about 310 miles at a maximum altitude of 500 miles.

Observers say North Korea’s unusually fast pace in weapons testing this year underscores its dual goal of advancing its missile programs and applying pressure on Washington over a deepening freeze in nuclear negotiations. They say Kim eventually aims to use his expanded arsenal to win international recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state, which he believes would help force the United States to relax international economic sanctions on the North.

One of the North Korean missiles tested recently was an intercontinental ballistic missile potentially capable of reaching the entirety of the American homeland. That missile’s launch broke Kim’s self-imposed 2018 moratorium on big weapons tests.

There are signs that the North is also preparing for a nuclear test at its remote northeastern testing facility. Such a test would be the seventh of its kind by North Korea and the country’s first since 2017.

Last week, Kim showcased his most powerful nuclear-capable missiles targeting both the United States and its allies at a military parade in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. During a speech at the parade, Kim said he would develop his arsenal at the “fastest possible pace” and warned that the North would preemptively use its nuclear weapons if its national interests were threatened.

North Korea has previously unleashed harsh rhetoric threatening to attack its rivals with nuclear weapons. But the fact that Kim made the threat himself and in a detailed manner has caused security jitters among some South Koreans.

Wednesday’s launch came before the May 10 inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who has vowed to increase Seoul’s missile capability and solidify its military alliance with Washington to better cope with increasing North Korean nuclear threats.

North Korea has a history of raising animosities with weapons tests when Seoul and Washington inaugurate new governments in an apparent bid to increase its leverage in future negotiations.