SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea and South Korea tested ballistic missiles hours apart on Wednesday in a display of military might that is sure to exacerbate tensions between rivals at one when talks to strip the North of its nuclear program have stalled.
South Korea’s presidential office said the country had carried out its first underwater ballistic missile test. He said the nationwide missile flew from a submarine and hit its designated target.
The statement said the weapon is intended to help South Korea deter external threats – a clear reference to North Korea, which tested two short-range ballistic missiles earlier today. The launches came two days after the North said it had fired a newly developed cruise missile, its first weapons test in six months.
Experts say the North Korean launches are an effort to pressure the United States in the hope of securing sanctions relief aimed at persuading the North to give up its nuclear arsenal. US-led talks on the issue have stalled for more than two years – and in the meantime, tensions are mounting on the Korean Peninsula.
Meanwhile, observers say that the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which is actively pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, may have taken steps to appear tougher in response to criticism that it is too gentle towards the North.
Rival nations are still technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted the North and its ally China against the South and US-led UN forces, s ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the launches “threaten the peace and security of Japan and the region and are absolutely scandalous.” The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the move “highlights the destabilizing impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program,” although it said it was not a immediate threat to the United States.
The South Korean test is likely to infuriate the North, which has often accused its rival of hypocrisy for introducing modern weapons while calling for talks between the divided countries.
The South Korean military said the North Korean ballistic missiles traveled about 800 kilometers (500 miles) before landing in the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan. The launches represent a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit North Korea from engaging in any ballistic missile activity. But the council usually doesn’t impose new sanctions when the North launches short-range missiles, like Wednesday’s.
Wednesday’s tests took place while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul for meetings with Moon and other senior officials to discuss North Korea and other issues.
It is unusual for North Korea to make provocative launches when China, its last great ally and biggest aid provider, is engaged in a major diplomatic event. But some experts say North Korea may have used the timing to gain more attention.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Wednesday’s tests appeared to be an improved version of a short-range missile he tested in March. He said the weapon is likely modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile, whose flattened low-level flight makes interception difficult.
The international community is determined to get the North to abandon its nuclear program and has long used a combination of the threat of sanctions and the promise of economic aid to attempt to influence the North. But nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled since 2019, when the administration of then-President Donald Trump rejected the North’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange of dismantling an aging nuclear installation.
The government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has so far rejected US President Joe Biden’s overtures for dialogue, demanding that Washington first abandon what it calls “hostile” policies. But the North has maintained its self-imposed moratorium on long-range nuclear and missile testing, a sign it may not want to completely scuttle the possibility of reopening talks.
In 2017, North Korea claimed to have acquired the ability to strike the Americas with nuclear weapons after conducting three intercontinental ballistic missile tests and its most powerful nuclear test. In recent years, it has also carried out a series of submarine launched missile tests, which experts say is a worrying development, as such weapons are difficult to detect in advance and would provide the North with a second retaliatory strike capability.
South Korea, which does not possess nuclear weapons, is under the protection of the American “nuclear umbrella”, which guarantees a devastating American response in the event of an attack on its ally. But South Korea has stepped up efforts to develop its conventional weapons, including developing more powerful missiles.
Experts say the South’s military progress is aimed at improving its pre-emptive strike capability and destroying major North Korean facilities and bunkers.
Apart from the submarine-launched missile, South Korea has also tested a missile from an aircraft under development.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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