According to AP, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, its first weapons launch in about two months and a signal it isn’t interested in rejoining denuclearization talks anytime soon and would rather focus on boosting its weapons arsenal.
Last fall, North Korea carried out a spate of weapons tests in what experts called an attempt to apply more pressure on its rivals to accept it as a nuclear power in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions. The tests included a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a developmental hypersonic missile. Since artillery firing drills in early November, North Korea had halted testing activities until Wednesday’s launch.
The launch came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to further strengthen his military capability — without disclosing any new policies toward the United States or South Korea — at a high-profile ruling party conference last week.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the ballistic missile launch “highlights the destabilizing impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program” but didn’t pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory or its allies. It said in a statement that the U.S. commitment to the defense of its allies, South Korea and Japan, remains “ironclad.”
South Korea’s military said a suspected ballistic missile fired from North Korea’s mountainous northern Jagang province flew toward its eastern waters. Defense Minister Suh Wook said the launch is seen as part of North Korea’s military buildup, but that South Korea is analyzing whether it had any political intention.
In an emergency video conference, members of South Korea’s presidential national security team expressed concerns about the launch and said resuming talks with North Korea is important to resolve tensions, according to the presidential Blue House.
The Japanese Defense Ministry also detected the North Korean launch. “We find it truly regrettable that North Korea has continued to fire missiles since last year,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.
China, North Korea’s most important ally, maintained an even-handed response to the launch, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling for dialogue and saying “all parties concerned should keep in mind the big picture (and) be cautious with their words and actions.”
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to resuming nuclear diplomacy with North Korea “anywhere and at any time” without preconditions. North Korea has so far rebuffed such overtures, saying U.S. hostility remains unchanged.
Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in his New Year’s address Tuesday that he would continue to seek ways to restore ties with North Korea and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula until his single five-year term ends in May. He has recently pushed for a symbolic declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to reduce animosity.
U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program collapsed in 2019 due to differences over how much sanctions relief should be given North Korea in return for limited denuclearization steps. Kim has since threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal, though his country’s economy has suffered major setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, persistent U.S.-led sanctions and his government’s mismanagement.