Seoul, South Korea –fired two ballistic missiles into the waters off its east coast on Wednesday afternoon, two days after claiming to have in a resumption of its gun shows after a six-month lull. South Korea appeared to respond to the latest provocation with a landmark weapons test hours later, raising tension on the nuclear-weapon-equipped Korean Peninsula, where thousands of US troops are based.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North launched the two missiles on Wednesday from a site in the center of the country. Hours later, South Korea said it had conducted the very first test of a submarine-launched missile.
President Moon Jae-in’s office said in a statement that Moon observed the test of a ballistic missile launched by a nation-built submarine on Wednesday afternoon. He said the missile traveled a previously defined distance and hit a designated target.
A video released by South Korea’s Defense Ministry showed a submarine sailing on the surface, then cut into a clip that showed a missile emerging from under the sea and flying skyward.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said earlier that the North Korean missiles landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the waters between northwestern Japan and the Korean peninsula.
The latest North Korean tests “threaten the peace and security of Japan and the region and are absolutely outrageous,” Suga said. “The government of Japan is determined to further intensify its vigilance and surveillance to prepare for any eventuality.”
The US Army’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement it was “aware of the missile launch” by North Korea and “was consulting closely with our allies and partners.”
“Although we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to American personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK [North Korea’s] illicit weapons program. The American commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and Japan remains foolproof, “the statement said.
There was no immediate statement from the United States on the South Korean submarine-fired missile test, but the two – the countries are coordinating closely and America has maintained a strong presence of troops in the South, about 30,000 people – since hostilities in the Korean War ended without a treaty in the 1950s.
Seoul said South Korean and American intelligence services were analyzing details of North Korean launches.
The statement by the South Korean joint leaders added that the South had strengthened its anti-North Korea watchdog position. The statement was released ahead of the announcement of South Korea’s own missile test on Wednesday.
North Korea said on Monday it had tested a newly developed cruise missile twice over the weekend. North Korean state media described the missile as a “strategic weapon of great importance”, implying that they were developed with the intention of arming them with nuclear warheads.
According to North Korean accounts, the missile traveled about 930 miles, a distance that put all of Japan – including U.S. military installations there – within easy reach.
Many experts say the weekend’s tests suggest that North Korea is working to bolster its arsenal of weapons amid a stalemate in nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.
Wednesday’s launches came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul for meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and other senior officials to discuss the nuclear diplomacy standoff with the North.
It is unusual for North Korea to make provocative launches when China, its last great ally and biggest aid provider, is engaged in a major diplomatic event.
Moon’s office said Moon told Wang he appreciated China’s role in the international diplomatic push to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff and asked for Beijing’s continued support.
Wang said Beijing will continue to support the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the improvement of relations between the Koreas, and also called for further development of relations with Seoul.
Nuclear diplomacy between the United States and North Korea has stalled since 2019, when the Americans rejected the North’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling an aging nuclear facility. Kim’s government has so far threatened to manufacture high-tech weapons targeting the United States and has rejected the Biden administration’s overtures for dialogue, demanding that Washington first abandon its “hostile” policies.
The North’s resumption of testing activity is likely an attempt to pressure the Biden administration over the diplomatic freeze after Kim failed to leverage his arsenal for economic gain during Donald Trump’s presidency .
North Korea ended a year-long hiatus in ballistic testing in March by firing two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea, continuing the tradition of testing new U.S. administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at measuring Washington’s response and wresting concessions.
North Korea still maintains a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing, a sign that it may not want to completely scuttle nuclear negotiations with the United States.