North Korea launched three new ballistic missiles on Saturday, marking a record number of launches of this type by the end of 2022 and a dramatic rise in tensions with Seoul and Washington.
South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said three short-range missiles fired by North Korea into the East Sea, the Korean name for the Sea of Japan, were detected around 8 a.m. local time Saturday (11 p.m. GMT Friday). . Launched from Chunghwa County, south of Pyongyang, the projectiles traveled about 350 km and fell into the sea.
The new missiles cap 2022, a record year during which North Korea launched an unprecedented number of missiles and ramped up hostile gestures toward its neighbors. In particular, it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in March for the first time in five years. Another North Korean ICBM landed in Japan in November.
Saturday’s launches come five days after five North Korean drones penetrated the South’s airspace, one of which reached north of the capital, Seoul. Despite deploying fighter jets and attack helicopters for five hours, the South Korean military failed to intercept the drones, drawing widespread criticism.
The air incursion, the first in five years, was described as “intolerable” by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who vowed to respond in North Korea, saying “provocations will always have severe consequences”. On Thursday, the South’s army conducted exercises to strengthen its anti-drone defenses, according to the general staff.
Some analysts saw Saturday’s launch as a response to South Korea’s Defense Ministry’s announcement Friday of a successful space missile test, part of Seoul’s efforts to increase spying and satellite surveillance.
“The purpose of North Korea’s missile launches today is to respond to Seoul’s solid-propellant launch vehicle. Pyongyang sees it as a competition,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
The new missile launches came at an annual grand meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, where leader Kim Jong Un and other senior officials outline their 2023 goals in key areas such as diplomacy, defense and the economy.
The decisions taken at this meeting should be made public shortly after the closure of the project. In previous years, Kim Jong Un would deliver a speech on January 1, but he recently changed that tradition for announcements during the party plenum.
Saturday’s three launches could be “a gift to Kim Jong Un’s people, marking the end of a record year in terms of missile launches, and a salute to the Plenum of the Workers’ Party of Korea,” AFP assessed. Ahn Chan-il, a researcher specializing in North Korea.
“Kim is trying to send a message that people can feel safe because their country is clearly a military power, even though they are suffering economically,” he said.
In late November, Kim Jong Un said he wanted to give his country “the world’s most powerful strategic force.” Two months ago, North Korea adopted a new doctrine, changing its status to an “irreversible” nuclear power and authorizing it to launch a preventive nuclear strike in the event of an existential threat against its regime.
Seoul and Washington have offered Pyongyang the intention to soon conduct a new nuclear test, the seventh in its history and the first since 2017.
North Korean leaders, who say they are under constant threat of aggression from the United States, say a credible nuclear deterrent is essential to their country’s survival.
For their part, the United States, South Korea and Japan have strengthened their military cooperation and joint maneuvers in countering North Korean threats, especially after the announcement of the new Pyongyang Doctrine.
But the escalation has further irked North Korea, whose Foreign Minister Cho Son Hui vowed in mid-November “severe” retaliation if it continues.