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North Korea Fires up 8th Weapons Test of the Year


People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on Feb. 27, 2022.

North Korea fired what looks to be a ballistic missile early Sunday, marking a return to weapons testing after a near monthlong pause overlapping the Beijing Winter Olympics.

In an alert to reporters, South Korea’s military said a single projectile was launched at 7:52 a.m. from the Sunan area into waters off the peninsula's east coast. It later echoed the view of the Japanese military that the projectile could be a ballistic missile.

The missile flew at a range of 300 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of 600 kilometers, Japan's Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said. South Korea's military placed the altitude slightly higher, at 620 kilometers.

Sunan Airport on the outskirts of the capital, Pyongyang, is where North Korea had launched a pair of what it called tactical guided missiles on January 17. That month, the nuclear-armed country fired a record 11 missiles in seven rounds of testing.

North Korea’s last test, conducted January 30, involved a Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile — Pyongyang’s longest-range missile test in more than four years. What Sunday's test aimed to verify is expected to be confirmed in state media Monday.

Reaction from South Korea, US, China

At Seoul's presidential office, the National Security Council swiftly convened an emergency meeting, in which several Cabinet-level officials expressed their "deep concern and grave regret" over the ballistic missile test conducted at a time the world is trying to resolve a war in Ukraine.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Sunday called on Pyongyang to "refrain from further destabilizing acts." Condemning the ballistic launch, it said it is closely consulting with South Korea, Japan and other regional partners.

Ballistic missile activity by North Korea is banned under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Liu Xiaoming, Beijing's special representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs, tweeted that "the Biden administration needs to show it maintains strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific, including by responding sternly to Pyongyang’s provocations" in a call with Sung Kim, his U.S. counterpart. He said all parties need to remain "cautious in words and actions."

North Korea on its own timeline

Some analysts have warned North Korea may soon resume larger weapons testing while the world’s attention is focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sunday's resumption comes exactly one week after the curtain fell on the Winter Games in Beijing. In 10 days, South Koreans go to the polls to elect their next leader.

"All those matters must have been considered by the North Korean regime and military in deciding the exact timing of the most recent missile test," Bong Youngshik, research fellow at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University told VOA.

"But the most important consideration for the regime is its mid-term military capability development plan [unveiled January 2021 at its eighth party congress]", he said, which includes five types of weapons development, such as submarine-launched missiles, hypersonic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines.

Bong said technology linked to a submarine-launched ballistic missile, dubbed the Pukguksong, could be what was verified on Sunday, given that it has yet to be tested this year.

Motivating North Korea is its ultimate goal to be recognized as a nuclear-armed state by the United States and the world, said Park Won-gon, associate professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

A planned celebration on April 15 — the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung — could also drive the Kim Jong Un regime to more provocative steps, given the need to showcase successes to a domestic audience and the outside world.

"We all know that Kim Jong Un's achievement has been just on the military side; economically, they are having a really difficult time. There is a possibility of holding a military parade -- or they could have a launch of a long-range rocket [including] the possibility of an ICBM test," he said, using the abbreviation for intercontinental ballistic missile.

The last time the North tested an ICBM was in November of 2017 with the Hwasong-15 missile, with a range that conceivably could reach the continental United States.

The Russia-Ukraine factor

With Russia's invasion of Ukraine at the top of mind of U.S. officials, an ICBM test may come with less geopolitical competition for attention, Park said.

North Korea also appears to be struggling to define its view of Russia's invasion, he said, as it has long vehemently opposed the notion of a superpower using its military prowess to extend its territory by invading a neighboring sovereign state.

It is, for now, pinning the blame on U.S. imperialist ambitions, Park said, as seen in a statement by a low-ranking researcher posted on the North's Foreign Affairs Ministry website on February 26.

The commentary, signed off by Ri Ji Song of the Society for International Politics Study, said U.S. intervention has sown "seeds of discord in every region and country," and that its arrogance is on view with its characterization of others' efforts to defend their national security as "injustice and provocation." While mentioning the Ukrainian crisis, it did not refer to Russia by name.

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