HONG KONG – North Korea launched two ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, the South Korean and Japanese governments said two days after Pyongyang announced it had tested a new cruise missile.
The tests are the first in nearly six months under the Kim Jong Un regime.
In a statement on Wednesday, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the two ballistic missiles launched from a central inland area of North Korea and entered the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula. It said South Korean and US intelligence agencies were conducting detailed analysis for additional information, and the South Korean military had increased surveillance in the area.
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga confirmed that the weapons were ballistic missiles and called the launch “a threat to the peace and security of Japan and the region”.
“It’s just outrageous,” Suga said, adding that the rockets fell outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone, but the government will be monitoring the area “more closely than ever.”
Both South Korea and Japan said they would hold meetings of their national security councils.
The US military’s Indo-Pacific Command said it is aware of the missile launch and “is in close consultation with our allies and partners.”
The launch “highlights the destabilizing effects of the DPRK’s illegal weapons program,” said a statement under the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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North Korean state media announced on Monday that a new long-range cruise missile had been tested twice over the weekend. The missile has been described as a “strategic weapon of great importance,” suggesting that it may be North Korea’s first cruise missile with nuclear capabilities. It is not known whether North Korea has succeeded in developing nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on a cruise missile.
In contrast to cruise missiles, ballistic missile testing is expressly prohibited by the United Nations Security Council resolutions on the North Korean weapons program.
Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said North Korea’s recent missile tests would dampen international hopes for dialogue.
“Despite its self-imposed pandemic lockdown, North Korea continues to prioritize military modernization,” he said.
Before this month, North Korea’s last weapons activity occurred in March when it was testing a new short-range tactical ballistic missile. She also launched a cruise missile hours after President Joe Biden’s inauguration in late January to follow her practice of testing new U.S. leaders.
Talks on dismantling North Korea’s weapons programs have stalled since 2019 when talks between former President Donald Trump and North Korean ruler Kim over the issue of US sanctions collapsed. While the Biden government has signaled openness to diplomacy, it has announced that there will be no lifting of sanctions until North Korea makes progress on denuclearization.
Nuclear ambassadors from the US, South Korea and Japan met in Tokyo on Tuesday to discuss how to end the diplomatic standoff with the North.
North Korea was also among the topics Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South Korean officials, including President Moon Jae-In, were due to raise at meetings in Seoul on Wednesday.
As North Korea’s largest trading partner, China is believed to have more influence over its government than the US and its East Asian allies.
Easley said the launch of the ballistic missile while a senior Chinese official was in Seoul “made Beijing appear unwilling or unable to hold Pyongyang back.”
Wednesday’s test “highlights China’s responsibility to do more to ensure stability in Northeast Asia,” he added.
Stella Kim and Arata Yamamoto contributed.