North Korea on Saturday test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles, its neighbours said, the fourth round this week of weapons launches that prompted quick, strong condemnation from its rivals.
In an unusually strong rebuke of North Korea’s weapons programs, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said North Korea’s “obsession” with nuclear weapons is deepening the suffering of its own people, and warned of an “overwhelming response” from South Korean and U.S. militaries should such weapons be used.
“North Korea hasn’t abandoned its obsession with nukes and missiles despite the persistent international objection in the past 30 years,” Yoon said during an Armed Forces Day ceremony. “The development of nuclear weapons will plunge the lives of North Korean people in further pains.”
“If North Korea attempts to use nukes, it’ll face a resolute, overwhelming response by the South Korea-U.S. alliance and our military,” Yoon said.
Yoon’s comments could enrage North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has alleged that Yoon’s government was led by “confrontation maniacs” and “gangsters.” Kim has already rebuffed Yoon’s offers of massive aid and support plans in return for denuclearization.
The North’s testing spree this week is seen as a response to recent naval drills between South Korea and the United States and their other training that involved Japan. North Korea views such military exercises by the allies as an invasion rehearsal and argues they reveal U.S. and South Korean “double standards” because they brand the North’s weapons tests as provocation.
On Saturday, South Korea, Japanese and U.S. militaries said they detected the two North Korean missile launches. South Korea said the liftoffs occurred from North Korea's capital region.
According to South Korean and Japanese estimates, the missiles flew about 350-400 kilometers (220-250 miles) at a maximum altitude of 30-50 kilometers (20-30 miles) before they landed in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan. Toshiro Ino, Japan’s vice defense minister, the missiles showed “irregular” trajectory.
Some observers say the weapons’ reported low and “irregular” trajectory suggest they were likely nuclear-capable, highly maneuverable missiles modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile. They say North Korea has developed the Iskander-like missiles to defeat South Korean and U.S. missile defenses and strike key targets in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.
The five other ballistic missiles fired by North Korea on three occasions this week show similar trajectories to the ones detected Saturday.
“The repeated ballistic missile firings by North Korea are a grave provocation that undermines peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in the international community,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Toshiro Ino, Japan’s vice defense minister, called the launches “absolutely impermissible," adding that four rounds of missile testing by North Korea in a week is “unprecedented.”
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launches highlight “the destabilizing impact” of North Korea’s unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.
On Friday, South Korea, Japan and the United States held their first trilateral anti-submarine drills in five years off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast. Earlier this week, South Korean and U.S. warships conducted bilateral exercises in the area for four days. Both military drills this week involved the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its battle group.
The North Korean missile tests this week also bookended U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris' visit Thursday to South Korea, where she reaffirmed the United States' “ironclad” commitment to the security of its Asian allies.
This year, North Korea has carried out a record number of missile tests in what experts call an attempt to expand its weapons arsenal amid stalled nuclear diplomacy with the United States. The weapons tested this year included nuclear-capable missiles with the ability to reach the U.S. mainland, South Korea and Japan.
North Korea adopted a new law in September authorizing the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in certain situations, a move that shows its escalatory nuclear doctrine.
South Korean and U.S. officials say North Korea has also completed preparations to conduct a nuclear test, which would be its first in five years.
Experts say Kim Jong Un eventually wants to use the enlarged nuclear arsenal to pressure the United States and others accept his country as a legitimate nuclear state, a recognition he views as necessary to win the lifting of international sanctions and other concessions.
Multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from testing ballistic missiles and nuclear devices. The country’s missile launches this year are seen as exploiting a divide at the U.N. council over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and U.S.-China competitions.
In May, China and Russia vetoed a U.S.-led attempt to toughen sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile launches.
“North Korea’s frequent short-range missile tests may strain the isolated state’s resources. But because of deadlock on the U.N. Security Council, they are a low-cost way for the Kim regime to signal its displeasure with Washington and Seoul’s defense exercises while playing the domestic politics of countering an external threat,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.