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North Korea fires suspected ICBM after Biden’s Asia trip

People in Seoul watch a report on North Korea's launch of three missiles on May 25. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
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SEOUL — North Korea launched three ballistic missiles, including a suspected intercontinental one, off its east coast on Wednesday, just hours after President Biden wrapped up his trip to Asia where he discussed a response to the security threats posed by the North.

South Korea also detected preparations for a nuclear test — which would be the first since 2017 — with the testing of a detonation device, said deputy national security adviser Kim Tae-hyo. “It is unlikely that a nuclear test will happen in a day or two, but after that, there is enough possibility,” he told reporters.

North Korea’s launch of an ICBM that can potentially reach the U.S. mainland is considered a red line by Washington and its allies monitoring the North’s military actions.

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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 the 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 over less than an hour starting at 6 a.m. local time.

The first missile, which appeared to be an ICBM, flew about 224 miles at a maximum altitude of about 335 miles, according to the joint chiefs — far less than past ICBM tests, including one in March that flew 10 times higher.

LOFTED TRAJECTORIES

To avoid other countries, North Korea launches test missiles at a much higher-than-normal trajectory — nearly straight up — so missiles come down in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

MARCH 24, 2022

3,850 miles

NOV. 29, 2017

2,796 miles

JULY 28,

2017

2,300 miles

JULY 4,

2017

1,740

miles

MAY 14,

2017

Int’l.

Space

Station

orbit:

250

miles

1,300

miles

SOUTH

KOREA

RUSSIA

CHINA

JAPAN

Pacific

Ocean

Source: Japan Ministry of Defense

THE WASHINGTON POST

MARCH 24, 2022

3,850 miles

LOFTED TRAJECTORIES

To avoid other countries, North Korea launches test missiles at a much higher-than-normal trajectory — nearly straight up — so missiles come down in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

NOV. 29, 2017

2,796 miles

JULY 28, 2017

2,300 miles

JULY 4, 2017

1,740 miles

MAY 14, 2017

1,300 miles

International Space

Station orbit:

250 miles

SOUTH KOREA

RUSSIA

CHINA

TAIWAN

JAPAN

Pacific

Ocean

PHILIPPINES

—Guam (U.S.)

Sources: Japan Ministry of Defense

THE WASHINGTON POST

South Korea’s Kim said Wednesday’s test could have involved Hwasong-17, North Korea’s largest known intercontinental ballistic missile, which was showcased in a military parade in Pyongyang last month.

The second missile is thought to have failed midair, while the third one appeared to be a short-range missile and flew about 472 miles and reached a height of 37 miles.

With North Korea, Biden takes an approach very different from Trump’s

The South Korean government condemned the North’s launch 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 presidential office said in a statement. “It will only lead to North Korea’s international isolation.”

In response to the launch, the militaries of the United States and South Korea 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,” U.S. Forces Korea said in a statement, using an abbreviation for the Republic of Korea, the formal name of South Korea.

South Korea’s air force conducted an “elephant walk” training with fighter planes the day before in preparation for a possible provocation by North Korea, the joint chiefs said. Elephant walking is a process that allows many planes to take off in close succession.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-han, “condemned the DPRK’s destabilizing ballistic missile tests and committed to continue building on their close coordination,” according to a readout of their call on Wednesday. DPRK is an abbreviation of North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said it detected at least 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.” He noted it came on the heels of the U.S. president’s meeting with Asian allies and member nations of the Indo-Pacific coalition known as the Quad.

“Even under a situation where covid-19 is spreading, North Korea continues to focus on nuclear and missile developments, without regard for the lives and livelihoods of the citizens,” he told reporters Wednesday. The two missiles landed in the sea outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to the Japanese coast guard.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked to his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Wednesday, agreeing to work closely with them in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Wednesday’s launch marks North Korea’s 17th known weapons test this year, an unprecedented flurry. Pyongyang has been using the tests to diversify and expand its arsenal as part of leader Kim Jong Un’s five-year plan to expand the country’s military capabilities. 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, the North Korean state media shifted its tone on the pandemic, boasting about progress in its response. During his trip to South Korea, Biden, along with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, expressed willingness to provide coronavirus aid to North Korea, but Pyongyang 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 Tuesday.

Biden told reporters on Sunday in South Korea that he was “not concerned” about a 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 react angrily to Biden’s and Yoon’s recent promises 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 U.S.-South Korea military exercises could dial up regional tensions, experts said. While the two allies say the drills are defensive in nature, Pyongyang called them preparation 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.”

Inuma reported from Tokyo.

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