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North Korea threatens to turn Pacific into ‘firing range’ as it tests nuclear-capable launcher

North Korea said it fired projectiles in the first tests of its nuclear-capable launcher, a day after it tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) of 2023.

The tests were followed by a stark warning from the powerful and outspoken sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who told the US the country would turn the Pacific into a “firing range”, heightening tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Pyongyang’s latest round of missile tests sparked urgent responses from the US and South Korea, with Japan urging an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

In a 7am drill local time on Monday, two 600mm radial guns fired multiple projectiles at virtual targets 395km (245 miles) and 337km away, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

It said in a statement that Monday’s drills were in response to the US and South Korea staging combined drills involving B-1B bombers.

Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean leader and vice department director of the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, warned the US against increasing the presence of strategic military assets on its doorstep, in a furious and lengthy statement.

“The frequency of using the Pacific as our firing range depends upon the US forces’ action character,” she said.

“We affirm once again that there is no change in our will to make the worst maniacs escalating the tensions pay the price for their action.”

On Saturday, the hermit kingdom fired a Hwasong-15 ICBM off Japan’s west coast, prompting Washington and Seoul to hold joint air exercises on Sunday.

The missile flew 900km for 67 minutes and landed in the Sea of Japan.

A Hwasong-15 missile is launched at Pyongyang International airport (Reuters)
A Hwasong-15 missile is launched at Pyongyang International airport (Reuters)

It was fired in a “surprise ICBM launching drill” on the written orders of Mr Kim, the state media said.

North Korea said the ICBM test was meant to showcase its “fatal” nuclear-attack capacity and verify the weapon’s reliability.

South Korean scientists said that the ICBM warhead’s re-entry had failed. Ms Kim denied this and lashed out at the nuclear experts, describing them as “stupid”.

She also said claims by nuclear experts that it took nine hours and 22 minutes for the North to fire the missile was a “desperate effort to underestimate our preparedness of missile forces”.

Ms Kim said that the lengthy launch time included sealing off the site and evacuating people from the area and that the missile system itself was free from shortcomings.

“We have possessed satisfactory technology and capability and, now will focus on increasing the quantity of their force.

A TV screen shows Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during a news program at the Seoul railway station (AP)
A TV screen shows Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during a news program at the Seoul railway station (AP)

“They had better rack their brains to take measures to defend themselves, instead of doubting or worrying about other’s technology.”

Calling the US “the worst maniacs”, she warned of taking unspecified “corresponding counteraction” in response to the future moves by the US military.

South Korea’s military has denounced the North’s repeated missile launches, describing them as “a grave provocation” that undermines international peace.

Japan condemned the launches as violations of UN resolutions and a threat to the peace and safety of Japan and the international society.

Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida said on Monday that Tokyo has requested an emergency meeting with the UN.

“We must deepen Japan-US and Japan-US-South Korea cooperation,” Mr Kishida said.

An initial Security Council briefing led by assistant secretary-general for political affairs Khaled Khiari was set for later on Monday.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said the latest tests highlight “the destabilising impact” of North Korea‘s unlawful weapons programme.

The escalations come ahead of table-top exercises by the US and South Korean militaries this week to hone a joint response to the potential use of nuclear weapons by North Korea.

The allies are also set to conduct another computer-simulated exercise and field training in March.