North Korea fires suspected ballistic missile off its east coast, says South Korea

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North Korea has fired a suspected ballistic missile off its east coast, South Korea and the Japanese military said on Saturday.

The unidentified projectile — the hermit kingdom’s 15th major launch this year as part of a spree of provocative activity — has already fallen into the sea outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, Japanese public broadcaster NHK citing government sources said.

According to South Korea, the North had fired what appears to be a short-ranged submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from Sinpo city, where the North keeps submarines and other equipment.

This missile launch comes just three days after the North fired another projectile off its east coast from Sunan airport in Pyongyang, drawing widespread condemnation. Wednesday’s missile travelled about 500km at a maximum altitude of 800km, the North’s neighbours said.

The North Korean government in March had test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) for the first time since 2017, which landed in the sea 170km west of Japan’s northern prefecture of Aomori and inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Analysts see the launches as an attempt to provoke the US and its allies into negotiations over the tough sanctions regime imposed on Pyongyang, with diplomatic talks stalled since before president Joe Biden entered the White House.

The United States has warned that North Korea might be preparing to revive its Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was dismantled during the rounds of talks between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, and that it could stage a new nuclear test there as early as this month.

Last month at a massive military parade in the capital, Mr Kim had reiterated his warning that the North could preemptively use its nuclear weapons if threatened and vowed to expand the country’s nuclear capacity “at the fastest possible pace”.

“DPRK[Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] submarine technology probably remains short of being able to stay at sea for extended periods while avoiding detection. But the ability to launch ballistic missiles from a submarine would further complicate missions to neutralise and defend against North Korea’s nuclear forces,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“The Kim regime appears to be preparing to test a miniaturised nuclear device that it can claim will arm its SLBMs, tactical missiles, and multiple warheads on its ICBMs,” he added.

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