North Korea fired its most powerful missile since 2017 on Sunday, an escalation after conducting seven weapons tests this year instilling fears in Seoul of more nuclear tests or launches of long-range projectiles.
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North Korea, which has never conducted so many tests in a month, last week hinted at abandoning a nearly five-year self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental missile tests.
The North Korean government “has come close to destroying the moratorium they declared,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned in a statement after an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council.
Seoul warned that its neighbor seemed to be following “a similar pattern” to 2017, when tensions on the peninsula were on the brink of a precipice, noting that the next step could be to resume the nuclear and long-range missile program.
The South Korean military said it had “detected an intermediate-range ballistic missile launched at a high angle in the direction of the East Sea,” also known as the Sea of Japan.
This sloped trajectory means that projectiles are launched at a high angle instead of using their full range.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile had reached an estimated maximum height of 2,000 kilometers and traveled about 800 kilometers in half an hour.
This would indicate that Pyongyang has tested its “first intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) since 2017,” Joseph Dempsey, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote on Twitter.
The last time the communist regime launched a similar projectile was in 2017, when a Hwasong-12 missile traveled 787 kilometers with a maximum height of 2,111 kilometers.
Analysts then indicated that, due to the trajectory of the missile, it could have reached a range of 4,500 kilometers if it had used an angle that maximized its trajectory, with which it could have reached the US territory of Guam, in the Pacific.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Hirokazu Matsuno, said the missile launched on Sunday “was an intermediate or long-range missile.”
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told ABC’s “This Week” that the launch is “provocative,” adding that the United States is “absolutely open to diplomatic engagement without preconditions.”
“Our goal is to end the threatening actions” that the country is carrying out “against its neighbors,” he added.
– “The timing is perfect” –
This is the seventh military test in 2022 by North Korea, which has carried out two tests of supersonic missiles and four of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
Its leader Kim Jong Un advocated in December for maintaining the country’s weapons development and, in January, he has witnessed some of the tests and last week he visited an “important” ammunition factory.
“Kim has been holding back his appetite to test and provoke,” Soo Kim, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, told AFP.
Now, “the timing is perfect and North Korea’s continued missile launches throw another hot potato into Washington’s already packed portfolio of foreign policy challenges,” she added.
Some experts also indicate the need for the regime to vindicate itself in the face of comments about the country’s weakness due to international sanctions and the self-imposed blockade due to the pandemic, which sank trade with China, its great ally and economic supporter.
“The Kim regime listens to outside discussions of its domestic weaknesses … It wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it will be costly,” said Leif Easley, a professor at Ewha University.
In 2017, North Korea’s latest frenzy of military tests ended up culminating a year later in the historic summit between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore.
But after talks with Trump collapsed in 2019 in Hanoi, negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington were stalled despite fruitless calls by the Joe Biden administration to resume them.
This series of tests comes at a delicate time for the region. Kim’s main ally, China, is preparing to open the Winter Olympics in Beijing in a few days and South Korea holds presidential elections in March.
And internally, North Korea is preparing to celebrate the 80th birth anniversary of Kim’s father, the late Kim Jong Il, in February and the 110th birthday of his grandfather, the country’s founder Kim Il Sung, in April.