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North Korea fires ballistic missile amid rising animosities

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-Hyung, Associated Press

North Korea has launched a ballistic missile towards its eastern waters, Japanese and South Korean officials said.

The launch, the North’s 14th round of weapons firing, comes days after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to bolster his nuclear arsenal “at the fastest possible pace” and threatened to use them against rivals.

It also came six days before a new conservative South Korean president takes office for a single five-year term.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement that the missile was fired from the North’s capital region and flew to the waters off its eastern coast.

It called North Korea’s repeated ballistic missile launches “an act of grave threat” to undermine international peace and security and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions banning any ballistic launch by the North.

The statement said that Won In-Choul, the South Korean JCS chief, held a video conference about the launch with General Paul LaCamera, an American general who heads the South Korea-US combined forces command in Seoul, and they agreed to maintain a solid joint defence posture.

Japan also detected the North Korean launch and quickly condemned it.

“North Korea’s series of actions that threatens the peace, safety and stability of the international community are impermissible,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters during his visit to Rome.

Mr Kishida said he will discuss the launch when he meets Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi later.

“Naturally, we will exchange views on the regional situation in the Indo-Pacific and East Asia, and I will thoroughly explain the reality of the region including the North Korean missile launch today, to gain understanding about the pressing situation in the East Asia,” he said.

Japanese vice defence minister Makoto Oniki said the missile was believed to have landed in waters outside the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone. There has been no report of damage or injury reported from vessels and aircraft in the area.

It was not immediately known what missile North Korea launched. South Korea’s military said the missile flew about 290 miles, while Mr Oniki said it travelled about 310 miles at the maximum altitude of 500 miles.

Observers say North Korea’s unusually fast pace in weapons testing this year underscores its dual goal of advancing its missile programmes and applying pressure on Washington over a deepening freeze in nuclear negotiations.

They say Mr Kim eventually aims to use his expanded arsenal to win an international recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state that he believes would help force the United States to relax international economic sanctions on the North.

One of the North Korean missiles tested recently was an intercontinental ballistic missile potentially capable of reaching the entirety of the American homeland. That missile’s launch broke Mr Kim’s self-imposed 2018 moratorium on big weapons tests.

There are signs that the North is also preparing for a nuclear test at its remote north-eastern testing facility. If made, the nuclear bomb test explosion by North Korea would be the seventh of its kind and the first since 2017.

Last week, Mr Kim showcased his most powerful nuclear-capable missiles targeting both the United States and its allies during a massive military parade in the capital, Pyongyang.

During a speech at the parade, Mr Kim said he would develop his arsenal at the “fastest possible pace” and warned that the North would pre-emptively use its nuclear weapons if its national interests are threatened.

North Korea has previously unleased harsh rhetoric threatening to attack its rivals with its nuclear weapons. But the fact that Mr Kim made the threat himself and in a detailed manner has caused security jitters among some South Koreans.

Taken together with North Korea’s recent tests of short-range nuclear-capable missiles, some experts speculate North Korea’s possibly escalatory nuclear doctrine would allow it to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on South Korea in some cases.

The launch came before the May 10 inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who has vowed to boost Seoul’s missile capability and solidify its military alliance with Washington to better cope with increasing North Korean nuclear threats.

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