SEOUL — North Korea launched three ballistic missiles, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korean military said, hours after President Biden wrapped up his trip to Asia where he discussed an allied response to security threats posed by the North.
The launches come just four days after Biden and his South Korean counterpart held a summit meeting in Seoul and agreed to consider expanded military exercises to counter North Korea’s nuclear threats.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said three ballistic missiles lifted off from Pyongyang’s Sunan area, where North Korea’s main international airport is located. The three missiles were fired one after another in the space of less than an hour from 6 a.m. local time.
The first missile that appears to be an ICBM, flew about 360 kilometers (224 miles) at a maximum altitude of about 540 kilometers (335 miles), according to the JCS. The second missile only reached an altitude of 20 kilometers (12 miles), while the third one flew about 760 kilometers (472 miles) and as high as 60 kilometers (37 miles).
South Korean government condemned the North’s launch of a suspected ICBM and short-range ballistic missiles as “a serious provocation that threatens peace on the Korean Peninsula and the international community.”
“North Korea’s continued provocations cannot but result in a stronger and quicker allied deterrence from the U.S. and South Korea,” the South Korean Presidential Office said in a statement. “It will only lead to North Korea’s international isolation.”
Following the North’s launch early Wednesday, the combined U.S. and South Korean forces conducted a live-fire exercise involving their own missile systems, “to demonstrate the ability of the combined ROK-U.S. force to respond quickly to crisis events.” the U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement. South Korea’s air force conducted an “Elephant Walk” training with fighter planes in preparation for a possible provocation by North Korea, the JCS said.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said it detected two ballistic missiles from North Korea and was investigating possibilities of additional launches.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi condemned the North’s missile launch as “clearly provocative, absolutely unacceptable,” citing how it came on the heels of the U.S. president’s meeting with Asian allies and member nations of the Indo-Pacific security coalition known as the Quad.
“Even under a situation where covid-19 is spreading, North Korea continue to focus on nuclear and missile developments, without regard for the lives and livelihoods of the citizens,” Kishi told reporters on Wednesday. The two missiles were launched about 40 minutes apart and landed in the sea outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to the Japanese coast guard.
Wednesday’s launch marks North Korea’s 17th known weapons test this year, the latest in an unprecedented flurry of tests. Its last known weapons test was on May 12 when it fired three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea.
That test came just hours after North Korea reported its first coronavirus outbreak and called it “the most serious national emergency.” The largely unvaccinated country ordered a nationwide lockdown and mobilized its army to distribute covid-19 medications.
Just 10 days after reporting the country’s first outbreak, however, North Korean state media shifted its tone on the epidemic, boasting a progress in its response. During his trip to South Korea, Biden, along with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, expressed the willingness to provide coronavirus aid to North Korea, but Pyongyang still has not responded to the offer.
U.S. and South Korean officials assessed that North Korea, despite the virus outbreak, could conduct a nuclear test or launch a long-range missile around the time of Biden’s five-day Asia trip that concluded on Tuesday.
Biden told reporters on Sunday in South Korea that he is “not concerned” about potential weapons test from North Korea. “We are prepared for anything North Korea does. We’ve thought through how we would respond to whatever they do,” he said.
North Korea may well react angrily to Biden’s and Yoon’s recent vows to step up allied deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which Pyongyang says is necessary to protect itself from American threats. A future expansion of the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises could dial up regional tensions simmering over defiant North Korea, experts said. While the two allies say the drills are defensive in nature, Pyongyang called them preparations for an invasion.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that Wednesday’s missile launch “highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In March, North Korea resumed ICBM testing after a nearly five-year hiatus. It was not immediately clear whether Wednesday’s test involved Hwasong-17, North Korea’s largest known intercontinental ballistic missile that was showcased in a military parade in Pyongyang last month.
Officials in Seoul and Washington said North Korea appears to have failed in its initial test of the Hwasong-17 on March 16, then launched an older version of the ICBM days later, claiming it as a successful test of the Hwasong-17.
Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.