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North Korea fires more missiles

TV screens show news broadcast at the Yongsan electronics market in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. North Korea fired two ballistic missiles on Thursday, Japanese officials said. (Jeon Heon-Kyun/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

SEOUL — North Korea fired two missiles Thursday, Japanese, South Korean and U.S. officials said, in a sign of growing tension between Washington and Pyongyang over military exercises the United States carried out with South Korea earlier this month.

The launch marks Pyongyang’s second weapons test in a week after North Korea fired what South Korean officials called short-range cruise missiles.

The tests put renewed pressure on the Biden administration to develop a strategy to address a nuclear threat that has haunted presidents of both parties for decades.

South Korea’s military said Thursday that the North fired two short-range missiles at 7:06 a.m. and 7:25 a.m., respectively, from Hamju County near the eastern waters. The missiles reached an altitude of about 37 miles and traveled about 280 miles, according to a statement from Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles, launched from the ground, were probably ballistic.

The Japanese government said North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into a sea near Japan on March 25, fueling global tension ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. (Video: Reuters)

The White House and the State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A U.S. military spokesman, Mike Kafka, said in a statement that the United States is “aware of North Korean missile launches this morning into the East Sea. We will continue to monitor the situation and are consulting closely with our allies and partners.” Kafka said the activity “highlights the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community.”

Japanese officials said North Korea’s test on Thursday was of ballistic missiles, which would be the first such launch in almost a year and violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the missile test “threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region, and is a violation of United Nations resolutions.”

“I strongly protest and strongly condemn it,” Suga said in a statement.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said it has ramped up surveillance levels and maintains a readiness posture while working closely with its U.S. counterpart.

Pyongyang has so far snubbed the Biden administration’s diplomatic outreach to the country. North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, denounced Washington’s proposals as a “delaying-time trick” that lacks substantive offers to satisfy the regime.

Pyongyang has not reported any nuclear or long-range missile tests since former president Donald Trump’s first meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, although arms-control experts suspect the North has been expanding its military capabilities.

Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have been at a stalemate since Trump and Kim’s second summit meeting in February 2019 collapsed amid disagreements over sanctions relief in exchange for partial disarmament.

The Biden administration has yet to lay out its North Korea policy in full, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken denounced the regime’s human rights record and weapons development.

During his Seoul visit last week, Blinken pushed Beijing to leverage its “unique” relationship and “tremendous influence” over Pyongyang to lead the regime’s disarmament.

“Kim Jong Un is determined to deal with the new U.S. administration from a position of strength. With China’s economic support, North Korea isn’t just going to accept whatever benefits the Biden policy review offers,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Pyongyang’s provocations are aimed at negotiating more for less, such as sanctions relief for a testing freeze far short of denuclearization,” he said.

U.S. officials on Tuesday played down the initial short-range missile tests that occurred over the weekend, telling reporters that they fall “on the low end of the spectrum.”

Hudson reported from Washington.