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People watch a television broadcast showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch, at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea, June 5 2022. Picture: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/GETTY IMAGES
People watch a television broadcast showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch, at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea, June 5 2022. Picture: CHUNG SUNG-JUN/GETTY IMAGES

Seoul — North Korea fired eight short-range ballistic missiles towards the sea off its east coast on Sunday, probably its largest single test, a day after South Korea and the US ended joint military drills.

South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said that at least eight missiles were fired from the Sunan area of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and they flew between 110km and 600km at altitudes of between 25km and 90km.

In response to North Korea’s missile launch, Japan’s Self-Defence Force issued a statement that Japan and the US had conducted a joint military exercise.

And South Korea convened a national security council meeting where President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered “expanded deterrence of South Korea and the US and continued reinforcement of united defence posture”.

The meeting concluded that the missile launch was North Korea’s “test and challenge” of the security readiness of South Korea’s new administration, which took office last month, the president’s office said in a news release.

South Korea’s ministry of foreign affairs said Kim Gunn, its special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, discussed the provocation with US special representative Sung Kim, the US point man on North Korean affairs. Kim Gunn also held a phone conference with his Japanese counterpart, Funakoshi Takehiro.

Earlier on Sunday, Japanese defence minister Nobuo Kishi said the North had launched multiple missiles and the act “cannot be tolerated”. He said at a briefing that at least one missile had a variable trajectory, which indicates it could manoeuvre to evade missile defences.

Military drill

The US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that North Korea’s multiple ballistic missile launches highlight the destabilising impact of its illicit weapons programme but that the event didn’t pose an immediate threat.

Michael Duitsman, with the US-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said it appears to be the largest single test yet by North Korea. A large number of missiles also suggests a military drill or show of force, rather than a test of new technology.

The launch took place during a visit to Seoul by Sung Kim. The US official was originally scheduled to depart Seoul on Saturday, according to the US state department. He met his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Friday to prepare for “all contingencies” amid signs North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test for the first time since 2017.

Washington has made very clear directly to Pyongyang that it is open to diplomacy, Kim said during the visit, noting that he is willing to discuss items of interest to Pyongyang, such as sanctions relief.

Last week, the US called for more UN sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile launches, but China and Russia vetoed the suggestion, publicly splitting the UN Security Council on North Korea for the first time since it started punishing it in 2006, when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

New measures

In recent weeks, North Korea has test-fired a range of missiles, including its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

North Korea’s previous tests were on May 25, when it launched three missiles after US President Joe Biden ended an Asia trip during which he agreed to new measures to deter the nuclear-armed state. The first missile appeared to be the North’s largest ICBM, the Hwasong-17, while a second unspecified missile appeared to have failed mid-flight, South Korean officials said at the time. The third missile was a short-range ballistic missile.

The South Korea-US bilateral exercises involved an American aircraft carrier for the first time in more than four years.

On Saturday, South Korean and American ships concluded three days of drills in international waters off the Japanese island of Okinawa, including air defence, anti-ship, anti-submarine and maritime interdiction operations, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.

It said the exercises “consolidated the two countries’ determination to sternly respond to any North Korean provocations”.

The exercises included the USS Ronald Reagan, a 100,000-tonne nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, among other major warships.

Yoon, who took office as South Korean president on May 10, had agreed with Biden to increase bilateral military drills to deter North Korea.

North Korea has criticised previous joint drills as an example of Washington’s continued “hostile policies” towards Pyongyang, despite its talk of diplomacy.

Reuters

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