North Korea fires suspected ICBM after warning US, South Korea over drills

A news programme reporting on a North Korean missile test is seen in a railway station in Seoul on Feb 18, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL - North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Saturday, ratcheting up tensions days before Seoul and Washington are due to start joint tabletop exercises.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters the missile fired by North Korea on Saturday was an apparent ICBM that landed within the country’s exclusive economic zone off Hokkaido.

“The latest launch was an outrageous act that was an escalatory provocation against the entire international community,” Mr Kishida said.

The missile reached an altitude of about 5,700km and travelled a distance of about 900km on a lofted trajectory, the government’s top spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said, adding that there have been no reports of damage.

He said Japan had lodged a protest through “diplomatic channels”.

“The government will respond by coordinating closely with the international community, including the US and South Korea, through the ongoing G-7 (Group of Seven) foreign ministerial meeting and the UN Security Council.”

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea launched the longer-range missile from an area near Pyongyang’s international airport at about 5.22pm (4.22pm Singapore time).

Japan’s Coast Guard said the missile was seen falling at about 6.27pm local time (5.27pm Singapore time) in waters off Hokkaido. 

The information provided by Tokyo and Seoul indicates the missile flew for more than an hour, which would be similar to the flight times of other North Korean ICBM tests.

Military tensions have risen on the Korean peninsula after a year in which North Korea declared itself an “irreversible” nuclear state and carried out sanctions-busting weapons tests nearly every month, including firing ICBMs.

In response, Seoul has ramped up joint military drills with key security ally Washington, in a bid to convince the increasingly nervous South Korean public of the United States’ commitment to deter Pyongyang. 

At the tabletop exercise next week in Washington, the two allies are set to discuss how they would respond to the use of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang. 

The exercise will focus on “joint planning, joint management and joint response with Washington’s nuclear assets” in case of a nuclear attack by Pyongyang, a South Korean Defence Ministry official told Agence France-Presse on Friday. 

Pyongyang on Friday threatened an “unprecedentedly” strong response to upcoming US-South Korea drills, describing them as preparations for war. 

Dr An Chan-Il, a defector-turned-researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said the latest launch indicated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “has finally pulled out his sword”.

“North Korea has warned of retaliation over the upcoming US-South Korea drills,” he told AFP, adding: “Kim Jong Un seems to want to confront the issue with a tit-for-tat approach.” 

South Korea’s hawkish President Yoon Suk Yeol, who took office in May 2022, has vowed to get tough on North Korea and is pushing to beef up America’s so-called extended deterrence, under which US nuclear assets offer protection to regional allies.

Earlier this week, South Korea called Pyongyang its “enemy” in a defence document – the first time in six years it has used the term, signalling a further hardening of Seoul’s position.

North Korea has also ramped up its testing, including firing a ballistic missile in 2022 that landed south of the de facto maritime border near South Korea’s territorial waters for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

In December, it sent five drones across the border into Seoul’s airspace, including skies near its presidential office.

Pyongyang has repeatedly said it is not interested in further talks, and Mr Kim recently called for an “exponential” increase in his country’s nuclear arsenal. 

At a military parade in Pyongyang last week, North Korea showed off a record number of nuclear and ICBMs, including what analysts said was possibly a new solid-fuelled ICBM.

The weapons on show included at least 10 of the North’s largest Hwasong-17 ICBMs, as well as vehicles apparently designed to carry a solid-fuelled ICBM. 

North Korea has long sought to develop a solid-fuel ICBM because such missiles are easier to store and transport, are more stable and quicker to prepare for launch, and thus harder for the US to detect and destroy pre-emptively. AFP, BLOOMBERG

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