North Korea fires suspected missile as South Korea breaks ground for 'peace' railway

The launch is the first of 2022, coming days after leader Kim Jong Un urged his state to focus on easing food shortages and containing Covid-19. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile off its east coast on Wednesday (Jan 5), just hours before South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a rail line he hopes will eventually connect the divided Korean peninsula.

North Korea's first launch since October last year underscored leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year vow to bolster the military to counter an unstable international situation amid stalled talks with South Korea and the United States.

“The United States condemns the DPRK’s ballistic missile launch,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement, using the country’s formal name, the Democratic Republic of Korea.

The US also called for renewed dialogue with Pyongyang. The launch violated multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions and posed a threat to the North’s neighbours, it said.

UN Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the programmes.  

The presumed missile was fired around 8.10am (7.10am Singapore time) from an inland location over the east coast and into the sea, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

It was fired from Jagang province on the northern border with China, the JCS said, the same province where North Korea tested its first hypersonic missile in September. 

“Our military is maintaining readiness posture in preparation for a possible additional launch while closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with the United States,” the JCS said in a statement. Recent North Korean missile tests have often featured double or multiple launches.

A few hours later, Mr Moon visited the South Korean east coastal city of Goseong near the border with the North, where he broke ground for a new rail line that he called “a stepping stone for peace and regional balance” on the Korean peninsula.

In remarks at the ceremony, Mr Moon acknowledged that the launch raised concerns of tensions and damage to inter-Korean relations, and called for North Korea to make sincere efforts for dialogue.

“We should not give up the hope for dialogue in order to fundamentally overcome this situation,” he said. “If both Koreas work together and build trust, peace would be achieved one day.”

The apparent missile launch by the nuclear-armed North highlighted the challenges that Mr Moon faces in his push to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough before his five-year term ends in May.

Reconnecting the two Koreas by rail was a centrepiece of meetings between Mr Kim and Mr Moon in 2018, but those efforts went nowhere as talks aimed at convincing North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons in exchange for easing international sanctions faltered in 2019.

Mr Kim’s New Year speech made no mention of efforts by South Korea to restart stalled negotiations or offers by the US to talk, though analysts noted that does not mean he has closed the door on diplomacy.

'Very Regrettable'

South Korea’s National Security Council convened an emergency meeting, expressing concern that the launch “came at a time when internal and external stability is extremely important” and calling on North Korea to return to talks.

Japan’s defence minister said the suspected ballistic missile had flown an estimated 500km.

“Since last year, North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles, which is very regrettable,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

Just hours after the North Korean launch, Japan announced that its foreign and defence ministers will hold talks with their US counterparts on Friday to discuss security issues.

Speaking at a regular news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged all parties to “bear in mind the bigger picture”, cherish the “hard won” peace and stability on the peninsula and stick to the use of dialogue and consultation to reach political settlement.

In state media summaries of a speech Mr Kim gave ahead of the New Year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did not specifically mention missiles or nuclear weapons, but said that national defence must be bolstered.

For several weeks, North Korean troops have been conducting winter exercises, South Korean military officials have said.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea has become even more isolated, imposing border lockdowns that have slowed trade to a trickle and choking off any in-person diplomatic engagements.  

It has also stuck to a self-imposed moratorium on testing its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons. The last tests of ICBMs or a nuclear bomb were in 2017, before Mr Kim met with then US president Donald Trump in Singapore.

But Pyongyang has continued to test fire new, short-range ballistic missiles, including one launched from a submarine in October last year, arguing that it should not be penalised for developing weapons that other countries already possess.

Missile development

“While the readout from North Korea’s recent plenary meetings may have prioritised rural development for the coming year, it doesn’t mean the country will halt its ballistic missile tests,” said Ms Michelle Kae, deputy director of 38 North, a North Korea monitoring programme at Washington’s Stimson Centre.

In a report last month, the US government’s Congressional Research Service concluded that North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programmes despite UN Security Council sanctions and diplomatic efforts.

“Recent ballistic missile tests and military parades suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defences,” the report said.

For the first time in his 10 years of rule, Mr Kim did not publicly appear at any missile tests or military drills last year, according to an analysis by NK News, a Seoul-based website that monitors North Korea.

Health issues or efforts to minimise attention may have played a role in his official absences, the site said.  

Mr Kim’s latest speech made no mention of efforts by South Korea to restart stalled negotiations or offers by the US to talk, casting doubts on South Korean President Moon's push to achieve a breakthrough before his term ends in May. 

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