North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile into its eastern waters on Thursday, hours after North Korea threatened to launch a “fierce” military response to the United States to bolster its security commitment to allies South Korea and Japan.
The missile fired from the North’s eastern coastal Wonsan area at 10:48 a.m. landed in the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, according to its neighbors. After discovering the launch, South Korean, US and Japanese militaries quickly condemned the launch which they say threatens stability in the region.
It was North Korea’s first ballistic missile launch in eight days and the latest in its barrage of tests in recent months. North Korea has previously said some of the tests were simulations of nuclear attacks on South Korean and US targets. Many experts say North Korea would eventually want to bolster its nuclear capabilities to wring greater concessions from its rivals.
Earlier Thursday, North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui warned that a recent agreement on the US-South Korea-Japan summit on the North would make tensions on the Korean Peninsula “more unpredictable.”
Choe’s statement was North Korea’s first official response to US President Joe Biden’s trilateral summit with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of a regional gathering on Sunday in Cambodia. In their joint statement, the three leaders strongly condemned North Korea’s latest missile tests and agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence. Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to defend South Korea and Japan with a full range of capabilities, including its nuclear weapons.
“The more the United States is on the ‘enhanced offer of extended deterrence’ to its allies and the more it steps up provocative and bluffing military activities on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, the tougher (North Korea’s) military countermeasures will be, in direct proportion to it,” Choe said. “It will pose a more serious, realistic and unavoidable threat to the United States and its vassal forces.”
Choe did not say what steps North Korea might take but said “the United States will be well aware that it is gambling, which it will certainly regret.”
South Korea’s defense minister responded later on Thursday that the purpose of the trilateral summit was to coordinate a joint response to contain and deter advancing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. Spokesman Moon Hong Sik told reporters that security cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo helped strengthen the US’s enhanced deterrence to its allies.“A serious provocation”
The North Korean missile launched Thursday flew about 240 kilometers (150 miles) at a maximum altitude of 47 kilometers (29 miles), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. It called the launch “a serious provocation” that undermines peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said repeated missile launches by North Korea threaten the peace and security of Japan, the region and the international community. US-Pacific Command said Thursday’s launch “highlights the destabilizing effect of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”
After the launch, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said South Korean and U.S. militaries conducted missile defense drills earlier Thursday to review combined preparedness for North Korean provocations. But South Korean military officials declined to provide further details about the drills, including whether they were already planned or staged after detecting signs of an imminent North Korean missile launch.
North Korea has steadfastly maintained that its recent weapons testing activities are legitimate military countermeasures to US-South Korean military exercises, which it sees as practice for launching attacks against the North. Washington and Seoul have said their exercises are defensive in nature.
In recent years, annual military exercises between Seoul and Washington have been scaled back or canceled to support now-dormant diplomacy with North Korea and protect against the Covid-19 pandemic. But in recent months, South Korean and US troops have stepped up their regular exercises and resumed trilateral training with Japan in response to North Korea’s push to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals.
In his statement on Thursday, Choe said that “the United States and its supporters conducted large-scale war of aggression drills one after another, but they failed to contain North Korea’s overwhelming countermeasures.”
There have been concerns that North Korea could conduct its first nuclear test in five years as the next major step towards strengthening its military capabilities against the US and its allies.
US and South Korean officials say North Korea has completed preparations to conduct a nuclear test at its remote test facility in the northeast. Some experts say the test, if carried out, would be intended to develop nuclear warheads to be placed on short-range missiles capable of hitting key targets in South Korea, such as US military bases.
Thursday’s launch came a day after members of the Group of 20 leading economies concluded their summit in Indonesia. The summit was largely overshadowed by other issues such as Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol used their bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping to raise the issue of North Korea. The two held a trilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and discussed North Korea before traveling to Indonesia for the G-20 summit.
In their respective bilateral talks with Xi, Biden noted that all members of the international community have an interest in encouraging North Korea to act responsibly, while Yoon urged China to play a more active, constructive role in addressing the North Korean nuclear threats.
China, the North’s last major ally and biggest source of aid, is suspected of avoiding fully enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea and sending covert aid to the North to help its impoverished neighbor stay afloat and continue to act as a bulwark against US influence on the Korean Peninsula.