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Ballistic Missile Launch Near Japan Pushes Tensions With North Korea

North Korea fired short-range missiles this past weekend, just days after the sister of Kim Jong Un threatened the United States and South Korea for holding joint military exercises.
Lee Jin-man
North Korea fired short-range missiles this past weekend, just days after the sister of Kim Jong Un threatened the United States and South Korea for holding joint military exercises.

North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan Thursday, in its first provocation of the Biden White House.

The missiles fell into the waters that lie between North Korea and Japan, and avoided the latter's economic zone, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a statement.

Suga condemned Pyongyang's actions and said it "threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region." He noted that North Korea's actions violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Thursday's launch was the first ballistic missile test since March 2020, and Suga said officials need to be "more vigilant and watchful than ever before."

North Korea also tested cruise missiles over the weekend, which are not barred by the U.N. Security Council.

"According to the Defense Department, it's business as usual, there's no new wrinkle in what they did," President Biden said at the time.

The United States Indo-Pacific Command said Thursday's launch "highlights the threat that North Korea's illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community."

Hong Min, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul, said Thursday's test likely contains both military and political objectives.

On the military side, "it's a pattern that North Korea tests missiles and multiple rocket launchers as part of its regular training in late March and early April." Politically, he said, "the test is probably aimed at seeing what the U.S. reaction is, without staging a huge provocation."

The Biden administration is still formulating its foreign policy approach to Pyongyang. Officials have refrained from taking any big steps - in any direction - toward North Korea.

It will likely be a different approach to former President Donald Trump's attempts at diplomacy with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While their talks marked the first in-person meetings between leaders of the two states, the two summits led to no advancement in denuclearization on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea has made it clear it intends to continue building up its military capabilities while waiting for the U.S. to offer concessions. In a military parade in October, the North displayed what is believed to be its biggest strategic missile so far.

Hong Min said it's unclear whether Thursday's launch tested a new weapon or an existing one. If it's indeed new, state media will likely report on it Friday, he said, so that "it can send an internal message that North Korea is responding strongly against the external pressures from the U.S."

NPR's Se Eun Gong in Seoul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.
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