North Korea launches a ballistic missile, South Korea says
By Choe Sang-Hun
North Korea on Sunday launched a ballistic missile toward the sea off its east coast in its eighth missile test of the year, the South Korean military said.
The missile, launched at 7:52 a.m. from Sunan, near Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, flew 186 miles to the east, reaching an altitude of 385 miles, the South’s military said. No further details were immediately released, but the data suggested the missile was less powerful than the last one the North launched, four weeks ago.
North Korea conducted seven missile tests in January, more than in all of 2021. Until now, it had refrained from weapons tests this month, possibly out of deference to China, its neighbor and only major ally, which was hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics.
South Korea called the missile test “deeply worrisome and regrettable” in a statement issued by President Moon Jae-in’s office. His office called a meeting of the country’s National Security Council after the launch.
With the Olympics now over, analysts had expected the North to start testing missiles again, both to advance its weapons technology and to gain diplomatic leverage with the United States, in hopes of eventually securing a reduction of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program.
The latest test comes as the Biden administration is focused on the crisis in Ukraine, and in the midst of a presidential campaign in South Korea. The March 9 election will pit a progressive candidate from Moon’s party against a conservative calling for a tougher stance on North Korea.
“With the United States’ attention in Ukraine and South Korea in the middle of a change of government, it’s a good time for Kim Jong Un to nudge them with a provocation,” said Lee Byong-chul, a North Korea expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, referring to the North Korean leader.
“North Korea will watch how they respond to this test before determining what it will do in its next missile test,” Lee said.
The North’s previous test — of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile, on Jan. 30 — was its boldest launch since November 2017, when it last tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Hwasong-12 reached an altitude of 1,242 miles before crashing into the sea, 497 miles east of its launch site.
Multiple United Nations resolutions forbid the North to test ballistic missiles.
Analysts said North Korea’s recent flurry of launches was aimed at putting itself higher on the Biden administration’s list of priorities. Since President Joe Biden took office a year ago, his approach to North Korea has been similar to that of former President Barack Obama: keeping the door open for dialogue, but refusing to offer incentives to bring Kim to the table.
Since Kim’s direct diplomacy with President Donald Trump stalled in 2019, he has ordered his government to build more sophisticated missiles, including ones capable of targeting the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific with nuclear warheads.
Kim says his arsenal is meant for deterrence, but analysts fear that North Korea could also export its missile technology to obtain badly needed hard currency.
“North Korea needs to collect data through more tests before it determines that its missiles are ready for exporting,” Lee said.
The statement from Moon’s office deplored the North’s decision to launch a ballistic missile “despite our patience and the joint efforts by us and the United States to find a diplomatic solution,” especially “at a time when the whole world was exerting its efforts to resolve the war in Ukraine.”
On Saturday, North Korea made what appeared to be its first official comment on the Ukraine war, publishing a statement that blamed it on the United States’ “highhandedness and arbitrariness” and “disregard of the legitimate demand of Russia for its security.”
“Gone are the days when the U.S. used to reign supreme,” Ri Ji-song, a government analyst, said in the statement, which was posted on the website of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry.