Seoul — North Korea launched a series of short-range missiles early on Thursday that appeared to be designed to attack ships, the latest provocation by Kim Jong-un’s isolated regime.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the rockets — probably cruise missiles — were fired from the eastern port of Wonsan and flew about 200km. South Korean President Moon Jae-in condemned the launch, which came a day after he suspended the deployment of an American missile shield.
North Korea’s 10th test of missile technology this year comes after Kim told his air force to be ready to bomb US aircraft carriers that are gathering in the western Pacific, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. On Tuesday, the US Navy said its Nimitz carrier left San Diego to join the Carl Vinson and Ronald Reagan as part of a routine deployment.
"We will not take a single step backwards or compromise on security," Moon was quoted as saying at a National Security Council meeting, according to his spokesman, Park Soo-hyun. "North Korea will only gain international isolation and economic difficulty through its provocations."
Kim has now conducted four missile tests since Moon was elected last month, complicating the new president’s ambitions to engage with Pyongyang. Moon temporarily halted the installation of remaining components of the US’s terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD) system, pending an environmental impact assessment. He previously called for a review of the deployment, which was approved by his predecessor despite protests from China.
Two launchers for the THAAD battery were deployed in April in Seongju county, more than 200km south-east of Seoul, with four more needed to make the system fully operational. Moon ordered an investigation into how the final components arrived in South Korea without the defence ministry informing him.
The suspension may please China, which had retaliated to THAAD by restricting some tourism and retail business with South Korea. Its foreign ministry reiterated its opposition to the deployment on Wednesday, while the US reaction has so far been muted.
"I hope any environmental concerns related to the full deployment of THAAD will be dispelled with a quick and thorough review," house foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce said in a statement on Wednesday. A full environmental assessment could take as long as a year, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing a South Korean presidential official.
Recent missile tests by Kim showed possible advancements in distance and accuracy
North Korea has accelerated its missile testing programme in defiance of UN sanctions as Kim seeks to develop a device that can deliver a nuclear warhead to North America. Before Thursday’s launch, Kim had conducted 78 ballistic missile tests since he took power in 2012, of which 61 were considered successful, US lawmaker Mike Rogers, chairman of the house armed services strategic forces panel, said on Wednesday.
Last week, the US tested a defence system which it said successfully intercepted and destroyed a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The trial was the first intended to replicate the flight profile of an ICBM that could be deployed by North Korea.
Recent missile tests by Kim showed possible advancements in distance and accuracy.
On May 14, North Korea fired a rocket that analysts estimate has a range of 4,500km, putting it within reach of Guam. Last week it launched a Scud variant which it said landed within 7m of its target.