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North Korea fires ballistic missiles as nuclear talks stall

HONG KONG – North Korea fired two ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the South Korean and Japanese governments said, two days after Pyongyang said it tested a new cruise missile.

The tests are the first carried out by Kim Jong Un’s regime in nearly six months.

In a statement released on Wednesday, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the two ballistic missiles were launched from a central interior area of ​​North Korea and flew into the sea off the east coast. of the Korean Peninsula. He said the South Korean and US intelligence agencies were conducting a detailed analysis to gain additional information and that the South Korean military had stepped up surveillance in the region.

A news program in South Korea reports the launch by North Korea of ​​two ballistic missiles on Wednesday.Lee Jinman / AP

In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga confirmed that the weapons were considered ballistic missiles and called the launch “a threat to the peace and security of Japan and the region”.

“It is just outrageous,” Suga said, adding that the missiles fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone but the government would be monitoring the area “more closely than ever.”

South Korea and Japan have said they will hold meetings of their national security councils.

The US Army’s Indo-Pacific Command said it was aware of the missile launch and “was consulting closely with our allies and partners.”

The launch “highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” he said in a statement, using the country’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

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On Monday, North Korean state media said a new long-range cruise missile had been tested twice over the weekend. The missile has been described as “a strategic weapon of great importance”, suggesting that it may be North Korea’s first cruise missile with nuclear capability. It is not known whether North Korea was able to develop nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on a cruise missile.

Unlike cruise missiles, ballistic missile testing is explicitly prohibited by United Nations Security Council resolutions on North Korea’s weapons program.

Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea, said recent North Korean missile tests would dampen international hopes for a dialogue.

“Despite its self-imposed pandemic lockdown, North Korea continues to prioritize military modernization,” he said.

Prior to this month, North Korea’s most recent weapons activity took place in March, when it tested a new short-range tactical ballistic missile. It also launched a cruise missile hours after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in late January, in line with its practice of testing new U.S. leaders.

Talks over dismantling North Korea’s weapons programs have stalled since 2019, when talks between former President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim collapsed over the issue of US sanctions. While the Biden administration has shown openness to diplomacy, it has said there will be no sanctions relief until North Korea moves towards denuclearization.

Nuclear envoys from the United States, South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo on Tuesday to discuss how to end the diplomatic standoff with the North.

North Korea was also among the issues discussed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korean officials, including President Moon Jae-In, at meetings in Seoul on Wednesday.

As North Korea’s main trading partner, China is seen to have more influence over its government than the United States and its East Asian allies.

Easley said launching ballistic missiles while a senior Chinese official was in Seoul “makes Beijing appear reluctant or unable to contain Pyongyang.”

Wednesday’s test “highlights China’s responsibility to do more to preserve stability in Northeast Asia,” he added.

Stella Kim and Arata yamamoto contributed.