SEOUL – North Korea on Friday fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles in its third weapons launch this month, officials in South Korea said, in an apparent reprisal for fresh sanctions imposed by the Biden administration for its continuing test launches.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles were fired 11 minutes apart from an inland area in western North Pyongan province, where North Korea is known to operate key missile bases and has frequently conducted test launches in recent years.
The missiles flew 430 kilometers (267 miles) cross-country on a maximum altitude of 36 kilometers (22 miles) before landing in the sea, the military said.
Japan’s coast guard urged vessels to pay attention to falling objects, but Chief Cabinet Secetary Hirokazu Matsuno said there were no reports of damage to vessels or aircraft.
Hours earlier, North Korea issued a statement berating the Biden administration for imposing fresh sanctions over its previous missile tests and warned of stronger and more explicit action if Washington maintains its “confrontational stance.”
The Treasury Department sanctions targeted five North Koreans over their roles in obtaining equipment and technology for the North’s missile programs in its response to the North’s missile test this week. The State Department ordered sanctions against another North Korean, a Russian man and a Russian company for their broader support of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction activities.
The Biden administration also announced it will seek U.N. sanctions, and a senior official from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said Friday that Washington will seek targeted measures against five individuals tied to North Korea’s weapons development and is working with its allies on additional designations.
The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said there has been no response from North Korea to the U.S. offer some months ago to sit down without preconditions to talk about ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, and the possibility of U.S. humanitarian assistance. The only response from Pyongyang has been renewed missile tests which are “pretty destabilizing, dangerous and most importantly contravene a whole host of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” the official said.
The test-launch of a hypersonic missile on Tuesday — the second in a week — was overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, who said it would greatly increase his country’s nuclear “war deterrent.”
North Korea has been ramping up tests of new, potentially nuclear-capable missiles designed to overwhelm missile defenses in the region. Some experts say Kim is going back to a tried-and-true technique of pressuring the world with missile launches and outrageous threats before offering negotiations meant to extract concessions.
Following an unusually provocative run in nuclear and long-range missile tests in 2017 that demonstrated the North’s pursuit of an arsenal that could target the American homeland, Kim initiated diplomacy with former President Donald Trump in 2018 in an attempt to leverage his nukes for economic benefits.
But the negotiations derailed after Kim’s second summit with Trump in 2019, when the Americans rejected his demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of the North’s nuclear capabilities.
Kim has since pledged to further expand a nuclear arsenal he clearly sees as his strongest guarantee of survival, despite the country’s economy suffering major setbacks after it shut its borders during the pandemic as well as persistent U.S.-led sanctions.
His government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s open-ended offer to resume talks, saying Washington must abandon its “hostile policy” first — a term Pyongyang mainly uses to describe the sanctions and joint U.S.-South Korea military drills.
South Korea’s presidential office said National Security Director Suh Hoon and other senior officials convened an emergency National Security Council meeting, expressed “strong regret” over the continued launches and urged Pyongyang to recommit to dialogue.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said North Korea appears to be signaling it will not be ignored and will respond to pressure with pressure.
“North Korea is trying to lay a trap for the Biden administration,” Easley said. “It has queued up missiles that it wants to test anyway and is responding to U.S. pressure with additional provocations in an effort to extort concessions.”
The timing of the launch and detection of multiple missiles suggest North Korea demonstrated weapons that were already operational, rather than some of its other missiles under development, as it sought to signal Washington, said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.
He said the North may have tested a solid-fuel missile apparently modeled after Russia’s Iskander mobile ballistic system, or another short-range weapon that looks similar to the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System.
Both missiles, which the North has tested since 2019, are designed to be maneuverable and fly at low attitudes, which potentially improves their chances of evading and defeating missile defense systems.
In a statement carried by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Friday defended the North’s previous launches as a righteous exercise of self-defense.
The spokesperson said the new sanctions underscore hostile U.S. intent aimed at “isolating and stifling” the North. The spokesperson accused Washington of maintaining a “gangster-like” stance, saying that the North’s development of hypersonic missiles is part of its efforts to modernize its military and does not target any specific country or threaten the security of its neighbors.
Hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, could pose a crucial challenge to missile defenses because of their speed and maneuverability.
Such weapons were on a wish-list of sophisticated military assets Kim Jong Un unveiled early last year along with multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, solid-fuel long-range missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
Still, experts say North Korea would need years and more successful and longer-range tests before acquiring a credible hypersonic system.
In an interview with MSNBC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the North’s latest tests “profoundly destabilizing” and said the United States was deeply engaged at the U.N. and with key partners, including allies South Korea and Japan, on a response.
“I think some of this is North Korea trying to get attention. It’s done that in the past. It’ll probably continue to do that,” Blinken said. “But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea.”
Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.