Passersby watch a TV report of North Korea’s missile launch at Seoul Station. (File Photo - Yonhap)
North Korea launched a ballistic missile eastward from the capital city of Pyongyang on Wednesday afternoon, in continuation of actions raising tension in the run-up to the inauguration of the Yoon Suk-yeol government and the South Korea-US summit.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military “detected one ballistic missile being fired from the Sunan area in Pyongyang city toward the East Sea at around 12:03 p.m.”
The missile traveled around 470 kilometers at an altitude of 780 km and at a maximum speed of Mach 11, the JCS said. The South Korean and the US intelligence authorities are analyzing the specifications of the missile.
Soon after the latest launch, South Korea’s JCS Chairman Gen. Won In-choul and Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of the South Korea-US Combined Forces Command, held a video conference, shared information, and reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the allies’ “ironclad defense posture,” the JCS here said.
The South Korean military maintains a thorough readiness posture in preparation for additional launches while tracking and monitoring related movements by North Korea, the JCS said, calling for North Korea to halt its action.
“Given that North Korea’s recent series of ballistic missile launches is a grave threat to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the international community and clearly violates the UN Security Council resolutions, we strongly urge the country to immediately stop the action,” the statement read.
The South Korean military is reportedly bracing for the possibility of North Korea firing intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles, including an Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.
The test launch could aim to put a reconnaissance satellite into a low earth orbit by using a ballistic-missile reentry vehicle.
National security adviser Suh Hoon presided over the emergency meeting of the presidential National Security Council standing committee at 1:30 p.m., according to Cheong Wa Dae.
Missile launch at a sensitive time
North Korea’s missile launch comes at a sensitive time as the incoming Yoon Suk-yeol government is set to be sworn into office on May 10. The missile was also fired during the confirmation hearing of South Korean Defense Minister nominee Lee Jong-sup at the National Assembly.
In addition, the test-firing overlaps with China’s chief nuclear envoy Liu Xiaoming’s first trip to Seoul since his appointment to discuss the North Korean nuclear issue with officials of the incumbent and incoming South Korean governments.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, assessed that North Korea simultaneously sought to “lay the groundwork to gain the upper hand” over the incoming South Korean government and manifest its intent to continue to reinforce nuclear capabilities by firing the missile at this juncture.
“North Korea intends to demonstrate that its pledge to strengthen nuclear capabilities is not an empty promise and to show off that the country is in the driver’s seat concerning Korean Peninsula issues in the run-up to the inauguration of the new government and the South Korea-US summit (in May),” he said.
Yang also forecast that North Korea would continue to ratchet up the tension by firing intercontinental ballistic missiles and preparing for a seventh nuclear test to operate tactical nuclear weapons this month.
The move comes after Pyongyang in April focused on boosting the country’s morale, solidifying internal unity and highlighting the country’s military achievements on the occasion of the late founder Kim Il-sung’s 110th birth anniversary and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army.
Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, saw the missile launch as a “provocation forewarned” by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The North Korean leader on April 25 pledged to further reinforce and develop nuclear-armed forces “at the fastest possible speed” in a speech he delivered during the military parade commemorating the anniversary.
Park pointed out that Kim’s remarks clarified North Korea’s intent to accelerate missile and nuclear tests in the form of its “speed campaign,” legitimizing its weapons development as the act of enhancing self-defense capabilities.
North Korea, Park said, has pursued the goal of incapacitating the US and South Korean missile defenses and developing tactical nuclear weapons that can target the region. Against that backdrop, Pyongyang will continue to develop and variegate nuclear weapons and missiles irrespective of external circumstances.
“However, there is a chance that North Korea may adjust the timing of provocations to maximize pressure on South Korea and the US, given that it is advancing its missiles and missile capabilities with the aim of being recognized as a nuclear weapon state.”
The missile launch is noteworthy given that North Korea has ratcheted up its nuclear saber-rattling. Kim warned that the country can launch a preemptive nuclear strike if adversaries violate the country’s “fundamental interests” while commemorating the military anniversary on April 25.
Wednesday’s test-firing came 18 days after the country test-fired a “new-type tactical guided weapon system” on April 16. The North Korean state media said the test aimed to enhance its capabilities to effectively operate “tactical nuclear weapons.”
The presidential transition committee on Wednesday said the Yoon government will “strongly respond to North Korea’s provocations in cooperation with the international community based on thorough coordination between South Korea and the US.”
“We will come up with more fundamental measures to deter North Korean nuclear and missile threats,” the committee said, adding that it strongly condemns North Korea’s provocation.
During his confirmation hearing, Defense Minister nominee Lee also pledged to “sternly respond to North Korean nuclear and missile threats” by “intensively reinforcing” the South Korean military’s capabilities to deter and deal with the threats.
The nominee also emphasized the importance of enhancing the solidarity of the South Korea-US military alliance and strengthening the US’ extended deterrence, evaluating that North Korea has “heightened military tension by carrying out 13 rounds of missile provocations just this year and holding a large-scale military parade.”