North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) toward its eastern coast on Thursday, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The missile launch came two days after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Tuesday.
The missile was launched from the Sunan area, Pyongyang, around 7:10 a.m. KST. It is the North’s second ICBM test in a month, following the launch of a Hwasong-15 on February 18. The Hwasong-15 tested last month flew about 900 km with a maximum altitude of 5,700km.
Japan said the missile launched on Thursday flew some 1,000 km in about 70 minutes with a maximum altitude of 6,000 km. South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are analyzing the details of the North’s tested missile. Considering the reports announced by South Korea and Japan on the performance of the missile, it is likely that the North test-fired one of its newest ICBMs, which were paraded in the military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) on February 8.
However, North Korea seems to have fired the ICBM at a lofted angle. Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of the North’s leader Kim Jong Un, had threatened to launch such a missile at a normal angle when the North’s ICBM capabilities were questioned by South Korean experts months ago.
South Korea’s JCS strongly condemned North Korea’s series of ballistic missile launches for hurting peace and security not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in the international community, and urged the North to immediately halt the missile launches. The JCS also emphasized that South Korea will maintain firm and complete military readiness through extensive joint military drills with the United States to enhance the allies’ overwhelming response capabilities against any provocations from North Korea.
Attending a National Security Council meeting that was held hours after the North’s missile launch, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ordered the military to conduct the planned joint military drills with the United States on a larger scale. He also emphasized the importance of strengthening South Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation while warning the North that its reckless provocation will pay a clear price.
Adrienne Watson, the National Security Council spokesperson at the White House, also published a statement on Wednesday to condemn the North’s missile launch.
“It only demonstrates that the DPRK continues to prioritize its unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs over the well-being of its people,” Watson said. (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.) “We urge all countries to condemn these violations and call on the DPRK to cease its destabilizing actions and engage in serious dialogue.”
Since February 24, North Korea has resumed a rapid clip of missile launches as South Korea and the United States scheduled their extensive joint military exercise, Freedom Shield, from March 13 to March 23. North Korea fired cruise missiles from a submarine on Sunday, three days after launching six SRBMs toward its western coast.
In the past weeks, Pyongyang officials have vehemently demanded that Seoul and Washington immediately halt the military drills, which North Korea called an act of provocation threatening its security. With this, Pyongyang also tried to legitimize its nuclear development by saying that its nuclear deterrent “serves as a powerful physical guarantee” for coping with the arms buildup of the U.S. and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula.
Unlike the Moon Jae-in administration, which sought to tackle the North’s nuclear and missile threats through dialogue, Seoul has clearly stated that the joint military drills are nonnegotiable since Yoon took office in May 2022. When the nuclear talks were activated between 2018 and 2019, then-U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily halted the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills in a bid to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
To differentiate his approach to North Korea from his predecessor’s dovish overtures, Yoon actively sought to reinvigorate the military drills to cope with the rising aggression of North Korea. Along with the decision to scale up the combined military drills, the South and the United States also agreed to hold regular meetings such as the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) and the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) to strengthen the alliance’s capabilities to grapple with the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
However, as North Korea kept developing its nuclear weapons to confront the strengthened South Korea-U.S. alliance, more voices are calling on the South Korean government to consider developing indigenous nuclear weapons.
Thursday’s ICBM launch came hours before Yoon flew to Japan for a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. It is the first time in 12 years that a South Korean president has visited Tokyo to attend a one-on-one summit with the Japanese prime minister. Lee Myung-bak, a former conservative president of South Korea, visited Tokyo for an official visit in 2011.
Yoon’s visit to Tokyo was swiftly arranged in the wake of South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin’s announcement on March 6 to resolve a bilateral dispute over forced labor. Under the Yoon administration’s plan, South Korea will bypass the Supreme Court’s ruling that two Japanese corporations must compensate 15 plaintiffs who were forcefully exploited to work for them during World War II. This 2018 ruling has been the main cause of half-a-decade of friction between the two sides. Japan rejected the ruling and later moved to impose semiconductor sanctions on South Korea. At that time, Seoul considered abrogating the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a bilateral security pact signed with Japan, as a response but ultimately scrapped the idea due to U.S. intervention.
In order to mend ties with Japan, the Yoon administration has passionately worked to create a way to soothe Tokyo’s anger at the Supreme Court’s ruling. Now, as Seoul’s plan allows the defendant Japanese corporations to avoid directly compensating the victims, Tokyo made a friendly gesture toward Seoul as a follow-up.
On Thursday, Japan eased the semiconductor sanctions it imposed against South Korea following the South Korean Supreme Court ruling in 2018. Yoon and Kishida also agreed to strengthen cooperation to cope with the growing aggressiveness of North Korea while consenting to hold summit meetings in each other’s countries on a regular basis.
As Yoon calls Japan a cooperative partner that shares common interests on global agendas, his administration will likely seek more room for cooperation. However, it is questionable whether South Koreans will support his moves if Japan again makes controversial remarks distorting history. So far, Japan has not changed its controversial stance on the historical disputes, which brought criticism from the forced labor victims’ group.