North Korea launched what appear to be two more ballistic missiles, South Korea reported Friday, Pyongyang’s third missile launch of the new year.
The launch came hours after North Korea’s foreign ministry warned of “stronger” measures in response to U.S. imposition of sanctions for its previous missile tests.
“We are aware of the ballistic missile launch and are consulting closely with our allies and partners,” the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which is responsible for U.S. military activities in the region, said in a statement.
“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” the statement added. “The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.”
South Korea’s military, which closely monitors such launches, said the North fired what are presumed to be two short-range ballistic missiles from North Pyongan province Friday afternoon.
Earlier, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that the test involved a single ballistic missile, which it said landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
The reason for the discrepancy between the Japanese and South Korean reports was unclear.
North Korea has already tested four missiles, during three separate launches, within the last 10 days — a pace reminiscent of 2017, when U.S.-North Korea relations were at a low point.
The previous two tests involved what North Korea claims are hypersonic missiles. Although defense analysts say North Korea may be overstating its capabilities in this area, such weapons are likely more difficult for U.S. missile defenses to detect and intercept.
It is not clear what missiles the North launched Friday. Typically, North Korea does not unveil its launches until state-run newspapers are published the following day.
Firmer US response
The United States this week issued a stronger than usual condemnation of the North Korean launches. It also imposed unilateral sanctions on five North Koreans it alleged were helping procure supplies for Pyongyang’s weapons program.
In an interview Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the North Korean tests “profoundly destabilizing” and meant in part to “get attention.”
“It’s done that in the past, it’ll probably continue to do that. But we are very focused with allies and partners in making sure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions, consequences for these actions by North Korea,” Blinken told MSNBC, a U.S. cable news network.
North Korean response
Early Friday, before its latest launch, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry lashed out at Washington, accusing the United States of “intentionally escalating the situation” with unilateral sanctions.
“If the U.S. adopts such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will be forced to take stronger and certain reaction to it,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, according to state media, which used an abbreviation of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Under President Joe Biden, the United States has repeatedly offered to hold nuclear talks with North Korea “anywhere, anytime.” North Korea has ignored or rejected the offers, saying Washington must first provide more concessions and drop what it calls a “hostile policy.”
North Korea walked away from talks with the United States in 2019, after the two sides could not agree on a deal to relax U.S. sanctions in exchange for steps by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Bigger tests coming?
Duyeon Kim, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said it is obvious that North Korea is “angry and protesting” the U.S. sanctions.
“We should expect Pyongyang to protest through a show of force, which serves a dual purpose of perfecting its nuclear weapons technology through tests to achieve Kim Jong Un's goals he set out last year,” Kim told VOA.
“Washington is right to, and should, penalize any provocation that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and threatens the region,” she added in an email.
North Korea has several possible motivations for testing missiles, including shoring up domestic political support, ensuring the performance of new weapons, demonstrating deterrence, and provoking the United States and its allies.
However, since it resumed missile tests following the breakdown of talks in 2019, North Korea has refrained from any nuclear tests or long-range missile tests that would risk a firmer U.S. response.
Analysts have said North Korea may be unwilling to conduct more provocative tests ahead of the Winter Olympics, to be hosted next month by China, North Korea’s ally.
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.