The tests came just as President Biden wrapped up a trip to the region with a promise to deter the North’s nuclear and missile threat.
SEOUL — North Korea launched three ballistic missiles, including a possible intercontinental ballistic missile, toward the waters off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea’s military said. The launches came just as President Biden wrapped up a trip to the region, where he vowed to strengthen deterrence against the North’s growing nuclear threat.
It was North Korea’s 17th missile test this year. The missiles were launched from Sunan, near Pyongyang, the North’s capital, at 6 a.m., 6:37 and 6:42, the South Korean military said. American and South Korean officials have warned in recent weeks that the North was ready to conduct either a nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Shortly after the North’s tests, the South Korean and United States militaries each launched a land-to-land missile off the east coast of South Korea to demonstrate what Seoul called the allies’ “swift striking capability to deter further provocations from North Korea,” as well as the South Korean military’s “overwhelming” ability to launch “precision strikes at the origin of North Korean provocation.”
Separately, 30 South Korean F-15K fighter jets performed an “elephant walk” on the tarmac, ready to take off with a full load of weapons.
The first missile launched on Wednesday by North Korea appeared to have been an ICBM, South Korean defense officials said. But it flew only 224 miles, the officials said, indicating that North Korea did not want to launch the missile on a full ICBM trajectory over the Pacific while Mr. Biden was in the air, on his way back to Washington after a visit to Seoul and Tokyo.
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The second missile launch apparently failed because it “disintegrated” after reaching an altitude of 12 miles, the South Korean officials said. The third projectile was a short-range ballistic missile.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launches did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, but highlighted the North Korean weapons program’s “destabilizing impact.” In South Korea called the tests “a grave threat” to peace and called for the stronger enforcement of sanctions, warning that the North’s weapons tests would only “deepen its isolation.”
North Korea last conducted an ICBM test on March 24, breaking a self-imposed moratorium that had been in place since 2018.
The missile launches on Wednesday were a strong signal that North Korea was embarking on a new cycle of tensions in the Korean Peninsula despite the country’s first reported outbreak of the coronavirus. It also constituted North Korea’s first public reaction to Mr. Biden’s trip to the region, where he met with the leaders of South Korea and Japan and vowed to step up measures, including joint military exercises, to help deter the growing nuclear and missile threat from the North.
In a meeting with President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea in Seoul last Saturday, Mr. Biden said that the United States would bolster the alliance and increase deterrence in the face of the North Korean threat. Mr. Biden and Mr. Yoon announced that they would explore ways to expand joint military exercises that had been canceled or scaled down under President Donald J. Trump.
While in South Korea, Mr. Biden voiced a deep skepticism about the chances of meeting North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, whom Mr. Trump met three times. Asked by reporters if he had a message for Mr. Kim, Mr. Biden said simply: “Hello. Period.”
Mr. Yoon has been highly skeptical of North Korea, as well, saying that the efforts by his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, to engage with the North in dialogue and reconciliation have failed to roll back its nuclear weapons program.
When Mr. Yoon was sworn into office on May 10, he dangled “an audacious plan” to vastly improve the North’s economy and its people’s quality of life. But like his conservative predecessors, he attached an important caveat: Such economic largess would be possible only “if North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization.”
The missile tests on Wednesday indicated that North Korea was not interested in nuclear disarmament talks anytime soon. In a speech delivered during a nighttime military parade in April, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reiterated that his people should prepare for a standoff with the United States “for a long period of time.” He also vowed to expand his arsenal of nuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles and other delivery vehicles “at the fastest possible speed.”
Mr. Kim has also appeared to adopt a more aggressive nuclear doctrine in recent weeks.
In the same speech, he seemed to take a page from the playbook of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when he warned that his nuclear arsenal was not just to deter foreign invasion, but also to be used “if any forces try to violate the fundamental interests of our state.”
Last month, Mr. Kim’s sister and spokeswoman, Kim Yo-jong, said North Korea could use nuclear weapons “at the outset of war.” After a short-range missile test last month, Mr. Kim said he was improving the “efficiency” of battlefield or “tactical nukes.”
North Korea declared a halt to all nuclear and ICBM tests to set the stage for the first summit meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump in 2018. But the efforts at diplomacy ended without an agreement on how to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program or when to lift sanctions.
Mr. Kim has since vowed to find a “new way” to deal with Washington and started testing a variety of new missiles. Analysts viewed his moves as raising the stakes in his confrontation with Washington and its allies by rapidly amassing a fleet of nuclear-tipped missiles and altering his country’s nuclear doctrine.
The new cycle of tensions highlights an uncomfortable truth both for Mr. Yoon and the Biden administration: Despite decades of negotiations and sanctions, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have only become stronger and more dangerous.
“North Korea continues to improve, expand and diversify its conventional and nuclear missile capabilities, posing an increasing risk to the U.S. homeland and U.S. forces, allies, and partners in the region,” John Plumb, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this month. “Most of North Korea’s ballistic missiles have an assessed capability to carry nuclear payloads.”