North Korea launches suspected missile test hours after declaring Covid emergency

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North Korea has fired a new suspected ballistic missile off its east coast, the South Korean military and the Japanese prime minister’s office said on Thursday, the latest in a spree of test launches.

The new weapons test included three short-range ballistic missiles fired from the Sunan area of the North Korean capital Pyongyang towards waters on the eastern coast, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.

Japan’s defence ministry also confirmed the launch of what it suspected were ballistic missiles but refused to provide any details.

The test comes just hours after the east Asian country declared a “grave” national Covid emergency, finally confirming its first-ever official case of coronavirus with leader Kim Jong-un appearing in a mask on television. Experts and independent observers say it is highly likely the country has had Covid outbreaks in the past but failed to declare them to the international community.

Thursday’s test would also be the second time this month Pyongyang has fired ballistic missiles, and comes just two days after South Korea’s new president Yoon Seok-youl came to office. It was also North Korea’s 16th round of tests this year.

The back-to-back missile launches are seen as an attempt to put pressure on the North’s rivals to return to negotiations over lifting international sanctions, and there is widespread speculation that Pyongyang is close to carrying out new nuclear weapons tests.

Last month, Mr Kim showed off his most powerful missiles during a massive military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, where he vowed to expand the country’s nuclear capacity “at the fastest possible pace” and threatened to use such weapons against his rivals.

“True peace can be trusted and national dignity and national sovereignty can be guaranteed by the powerful self-defence force that can overcome the enemy,” Mr Kim said in a statement released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency after the parade.

He said his nuclear force’s first mission was “to deter war,” but if anyone tried “to take away the fundamental interests of our country, our nuclear force will have no choice but to carry out its second mission”.

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