North and South Korea tested ballistic missiles at hourly intervals on Wednesday in a demonstration of military force that will certainly exacerbate tensions between rivals at a time when negotiations aimed at removing the Nordic nuclear program have stalled.
The South Korean and Japanese militaries said North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles that flew 800 kilometers (500 miles) before landing in the sea inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone — a worrying development even though they did not reach Japan’s territorial waters. The last time a North Korean missile landed inside this zone was October 2019.
The launches came two days after North said it fired a newly developed cruise missile, its first weapons test in six months.
Hours after the North Korean launches on Wednesday, the South Korean presidential office said the country was conducting its first submarine-based ballistic missile test. It said the interior-built missile flew from a submarine and hit its designated target while President Moon Jae-in and other top officials watched. It did not say how far it flew.
Moon said improvements to the country’s missile capabilities would serve as “a sure deterrent to North Korean provocation.”
Experts say North Korea is building its weapons systems to put pressure on the United States in hopes of winning relief from sanctions aimed at forcing the Nordic region to abandon its nuclear arsenal. U.S.-led talks on the issue have stalled for more than two years — and meanwhile, tensions have been rising on the Korean Peninsula.
“North Korea is trying to convey a message that things will not go the way Washington wants if it does not accept the Nordic demands,” said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Korea-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul. He said North Korea might think it now has a chance to win concessions from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration while involved in a domestic debate following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, observers say Moon’s government, which has been actively pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, may have taken steps to work harder in response to criticism that it is too soft to the north.
The rival nations are technically still in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted North and Allied China against the southern and US-led UN forces, ended in a ceasefire, not a peace agreement.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the launches “threaten peace and security in Japan and the region and are absolutely scandalous.”
The White House did not have an immediate response to the duel weapons tests between Korea.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the North Korean test “highlights the destabilizing effect of (North Korea’s) illegal weapons program,” although it said it did not pose an immediate threat to the United States.
The South Korean test is likely to infuriate the Nordic region, which has often accused its rival of hypocrisy of introducing modern weapons while calling for talks between the divided countries.
The North Korean launches represent a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that prevent North Korea from participating in any ballistic missile activity. But the council typically does not impose new sanctions when the Nordic region launches short-range missiles, as on Wednesday.
Wednesday’s tests came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul for meetings with Moon and other senior officials to discuss North Korea and other issues.
It is unusual for North Korea to make provocative launches when China, its last major ally and largest aid provider, is involved in a major diplomatic event. But some experts say North Korea may have used the timing to draw extra attention.
Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Wednesday’s tests appeared to be of an improved version of a short-range missile it tested in March. He said the weapon was probably modeled after Russia’s Iskander missiles, which are designed to fly at relatively low altitudes, making them harder to intercept by missile defense systems.
The international community is determined to get the Nordic region to abandon its nuclear program and has long used a combination of the threat of sanctions and the promise of financial aid to try to influence the Nordic region. But nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled since 2019, when the then US President Donald Trump’s government rejected the Nordic demands for greater sanctions against dismantling an aging nuclear power plant.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s openings for dialogue, demanding that Washington first abandon what it calls “hostile” policies. But the Nordic region has maintained its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, a sign that it may not abolish the possibility of reopening the talks.
In 2017, North Korea claimed to have acquired the capability to hit the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons after conducting three intercontinental ballistic missile tests and its most powerful nuclear test. In recent years, it has also conducted a number of underwater-launched missile tests in what experts say is a worrying development because such weapons are difficult to detect in advance and would give the Nordic region another, retaliatory attack.
South Korea, which has no nuclear weapons, is under the protection of the US “nuclear umbrella”, which guarantees a devastating US response in the event of an attack on its allies. But South Korea has accelerated efforts to build its conventional weapons, including developing more powerful missiles.
Experts say the South’s military progress is aimed at improving its capabilities for preventive attacks and destroying important North Korean facilities and bunkers.
Separated from the submarine-fired missile, South Korea also tested a missile from an aircraft.