North Korea Launches Missiles Hours After Biden Leaves Asia

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea test-launched a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile and two shorter-range weapons into the sea Wednesday, South Korea said, hours after President Joe Biden ended a trip to Asia where he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend its allies in the face of the North’s nuclear threat.

If confirmed, it would be North Korea’s first ICBM launch in about two months amid stalled nuclear diplomacy with the United States. In March, North Korea claimed that it had successfully launched its longest-range missile in violation of the 2018 long-distance launch moratorium. This was part of developing nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching America’s homeland.

These launches occurred as North Korea claimed, in a highly-disputed statement that it was experiencing a weakening of its COVID-19 first outbreak.

Following an emergency meeting with the nation’s security council, South Korea announced that North Korea may have fired a suspected ICBM along with two ballistic short-range missiles.

“North Korea’s sustained provocations can only result in stronger and faster South Korea-U.S. combined deterrence and can only deepen North Korea’s international isolation,” the South Korean government statement said. “(Our) government is maintaining constant readiness to strongly and effectively respond to any kind of North Korean provocation.”

South Korea’s military said the suspected ICBM reached a maximum height of 540 kilometers (335 miles) while traveling 360 kilometers (223 miles) east after being fired from the North’s capital region. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the North lost its second missile at 20 km (12 miles) after it was launched. The third missile traveled 760 kilometers (472 mi) east from the North’s capital region. Its apogee reached 60 km (37 miles).

A JCS statement said the U.S. and South Korean militaries fired two surface-to-surface missiles in response to demonstrate the allies’ striking capabilities. It said the allies had detected North Korea’s preparations for the launches in advance. It said South Korea’s air force on Tuesday conducted an “elephant walk” involving 30, fully armed F-15K fighter jets parading along a runway in formation.

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The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command earlier said the missile launches highlight “the destabilizing impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program” though they didn’t pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory and its allies. A command statement said the U.S. commitment to the defense of the South Korea and Japan “remains ironclad.”

According to the White House, Biden was briefed about North Korean missile launches. This will be continued as more information becomes available.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the launches were “an act of provocation and absolutely impermissible.” He accused North Korea of pressing ahead with its weapons development program while “ignoring the people’s suffering amid the spread of the coronavirus in the country.”

The launches were North Korea’s 17th round of missile firings this year. Experts have said the launches show North Korea’s determination to move ahead with its push to modernize its weapons arsenals despite the COVID-19 outbreak and apply more pressure on its rivals to wrest sanctions relief and other concessions amid dormant nuclear diplomacy.

U.S. officials, South Korean and Japanese officials said that North Korea might soon perform its first nuclear test within five years.

“If omicron is raging in the country, it is not the best time for Kim to take domestic political credit for a nuclear test,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “So declaring victory against COVID, at least in state propaganda, will probably come first. But North Korea is likely to conduct its seventh nuclear test before reengaging in diplomacy.”

North Korea’s unusual pace in weapons tests this year included an ICBM launch in March that was its first since 2017. North Korea described the launch as an attempt to demonstrate its largest missile, Hwasong-17. However, South Korea’s military said the North instead may have fired a smaller ICBM. Experts say the missile was capable of reaching the whole U.S. mainland and flew higher and longer than any weapon North has tested.

Biden and Yoon announced that they will consider expanding military exercises in order to counter North Korean nuclear threats after their summit in Seoul.

Biden brushed aside questions about any possible provocation by North Korea during his trip, saying, “We are prepared for anything North Korea does.” Asked if he had a message for the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, Biden offered a clipped response: “Hello. Period.”

Biden later met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo, and they vowed to work closely to address security challenges, including North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic programs and what they called China’s “increasingly coercive” behavior in the region.

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Before Wednesday, North Korea’s most recent missile tests were May 12, hours after the country acknowledged a COVID-19 outbreak and ended a widely disputed claim to have been coronavirus-free for more than two years.

The country in the past few days has said there has been “a positive sign” in its anti-virus campaign. North Korea admitted to having identified the virus in its outbreak. It has now confirmed that it has detected about 3,000,000 cases. Only a fraction of these were COVID-19.

State media reported Wednesday that the fever was not fatally affecting more people for the second consecutive day. This is a low figure for COVID-19, with 68 people having died. Experts are skeptical about the numbers given that North Korea’s limited resources in health may have caused it to underreport mortalities. This could be done to protect Kim from political consequences.

North Korea continues to ignore South Korean and U.S. requests for vaccines, medicine and support. Much of North Korea’s 26 million people remain unvaccinated and the country’s once-free socialist public health care system has been in shambles for decades.

“At a time when North Korean people are suffering the pain of a COVID-19 spread, North Korea is using its crucial resources to develop nuclear weapons and missiles instead of measures to fight the virus and improve livelihoods, which is very regrettable,” South Korean Foreign Minster Park Jin said.

Mari Yamaguchi (Associated Press) contributed this report to Tokyo.

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