North Korea test-fires ballistic missiles in message to US

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a ceremony in Pyongyang on Tuesday Credit: AP

North Korea test-fired its first ballistic missiles since President Joe Biden took office on Thursday as it boosts its military and increases pressure on Washington over stalled nuclear negotiations.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the launches threaten “peace and safety in Japan and the region” and that Tokyo would closely coordinate with Washington and Seoul about the North’s testing activities.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, after meeting his Russian counterpart in Seoul, expressed “deep concern” over the launches and urged the North to uphold its commitments for peace. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for a swift resumption of dialogue to resolve the stand-off with North Korea.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles were fired at around 7.06am and 7.25am, local time, from an area on the North’s eastern coast. They flew 279 miles on an apogee of 37 miles before landing in the sea.

US Indo-Pacific Command spokesman, Captain Mike Kafka, said the US military was aware of the missiles and was monitoring the situation while closely consulting with allies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a ceremony on Tuesday. Credit: AP

Another senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military observations, matched the information from South Korea’s military, saying initial assessments suggested the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles.

“This activity highlights the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons programme poses to its neighbours and the international community,” Capt Kafka said.

The launches came a day after US and South Korean officials said the North fired short-range weapons presumed to be cruise missiles into its western sea over the weekend.

North Korea has a history of testing new US administrations with missile launches and other provocations aimed at forcing the Americans back to the negotiating table.

Still, Thursday’s launches were a measured provocation compared to the nuclear and intercontinental missile tests in 2017 that inspired war fears before the North shifted toward diplomacy with the Trump administration in 2018.

Analysts have predicted the North will gradually dial up its weapons displays to increase its bargaining power as it angles to get back into stalled talks aimed at leveraging nuclear weapons for badly needed economic benefits.

South Korean army K-9 self-propelled howitzers park in Paju, near the border with North Korea on Wednesday. Credit: AP

Negotiations over the North’s nuclear programme faltered after the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s second summit with former President Donald Trump in February 2019, when the US rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of their nuclear capabilities.

The North has so far ignored the Biden administration’s efforts to engage, saying it will not take part in meaningful talks unless Washington abandons its “hostile” policies.

Mr Kim’s powerful sister last week berated the US over its latest round of combined military exercises with South Korea that ended earlier this month. Kim Yo Jong described the drills as an invasion rehearsal and warned Washington to “refrain from causing a stink” if it wants to “sleep in peace” for the next four years.

Just hours after Thursday’s launches, South Korea Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong was to meet with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Seoul for discussions on North Korea and other regional issues.

South Korea’s presidential office said it would hold an emergency National Security Council meeting to discuss the launches.

US President Joe Biden said there was nothing new in North Korea’s missile firings of last weekend Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

South Korea’s Defence Ministry said the North’s short-range tests on Sunday were its first missile firings since April 2020. Mr Biden played down those launches, telling reporters there was “no new wrinkle in what they did”.

Since Mr Trump’s first meeting with Mr Kim in Singapore in 2018, the North has not conducted nuclear or long-range missile tests, although analysts believe they have pressed ahead with their programmes on both.

The North has continued short and medium range missile testing during its suspension of nuclear and long-range tests, expanding its ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including US bases there.

While Mr Kim has vowed to strengthen his nuclear weapons programme in recent speeches, he also tried to give the new US administration an opening by saying the fate of their relations depended on Washington.

During his visit to Seoul last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sternly criticised North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights record and pressed China to use its “tremendous influence” to convince the North to denuclearise.