SEOUL: North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Saturday, Seoul said, the second missile launch in three days, after the United States warned that Pyongyang could be preparing for a nuclear test.
Pyongyang has dramatically ramped up its missile launches this year and has conducted 15 weapons tests since January, including a full-range intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time since 2017.
The latest launch comes just days before South Korea swears in a new, aggressive President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has vowed to crack down on Pyongyang and strengthen the US security alliance.
Satellite images indicate that North Korea may also be preparing to resume nuclear tests, with the US State Department warning Friday that a test could take place “as early as this month”.
“Our military discovered a short-range ballistic missile believed to be an SLBM fired from the waters of Sinpo, South Hamgyong around 2:07 PM (0507 GMT),” Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement. .
Sinpo is a major naval dockyard in North Korea, and satellite photos have shown submarines in the facility in the past.
The missile flew 600 kilometers (372 miles) at a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers, the JCS added, a distance indicating it was a short-range ballistic missile.
It landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Tokyo Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said.
He added that the “extremely high frequency” of tests by North Korea this year was “absolutely unacceptable”.
Pyongyang’s “remarkable development of nuclear and missile-related technology” is a regional and global security risk, he said, adding that Japan also believed “North Korea will be ready to conduct a nuclear test as early as this month.”
Last month, while overseeing a massive military parade, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to develop his nuclear forces “at the highest possible speed” and warned of possible “preemptive” strikes.
Pyongyang is “preparing its Punggye-ri test site and could test there as early as this month,” the US State Department said Friday.
The test could coincide with US President Joe Biden’s visit to Japan and South Korea later this month, or with Yoon’s inauguration on May 10, the State Department added.
“The North shows that its words about nuclear power are not without substance,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
“Recent launches show the strategic intent to gain the upper hand in Seoul’s new government,” he said, especially before Biden’s visit.
North Korea conducted six nuclear tests before embarking on high-profile diplomacy with the United States in 2018 and 2019, with former President Donald Trump meeting with Kim four times before talks collapsed. Diplomacy has languished ever since.
Repeated negotiations to convince Kim to give up his nuclear weapons have come to nothing.
“Instead of accepting invitations to dialogue, Kim’s regime appears to be preparing a tactical warhead test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“A seventh nuclear test would be the first since September 2017 and would heighten tensions in the Korean peninsula, increasing the danger of miscalculation and miscommunication between the Kim regime and the incoming Yoon government,” Easley added.
South Korea’s conventional military capability surpasses that of the north, and Yoon has called for more US military resources in the south, a topic likely to be on the agenda when Biden visits Seoul.
South Korea tested its own SLBM last year, making it one of a small group of countries that have such technology.
North Korea’s “submarine technology is unlikely to remain at sea for extended periods of time and avoid detection,” Easley said.
“But the ability to launch ballistic missiles from a submarine would further complicate missions to neutralize and defend North Korea’s nuclear forces,” he added.
On Wednesday, North Korea tested what Seoul and Tokyo said was a ballistic missile, although Pyongyang’s state media — which typically reports on weapons tests — did not comment on the event.
Under President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has had a policy of engagement with Pyongyang for five years. But for aspiring leader Yoon, this “submissive” approach has been a clear failure.
Analysts have said the series of missile launches suggests North Korea’s Kim Seoul may be warning that he will not be open to dialogue with South Korea’s new government on Yoon’s terms.