SEOUL/TOKYO — North Korea launched two suspected ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan on Thursday, underscoring steady progress in its weapons program and ramping up pressure on the new US administration as it reviews North Korea policy.
The apparent tests were reported by authorities in the United States, South Korea, and Japan, and coincided with the start of the Olympic torch relay in Japan.
They would be the first ballistic missile tests by North Korea in nearly a year and the first reported since US President Joe Biden took office in January.
Japan’s coast guard said the first missile was detected soon after 7 a.m. and flew about 420 km (260 miles), followed by a second 20 minutes later that flew about 430 km.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that two “short-range missiles” were fired into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan from North Korea’s east coast.
South Korean and US intelligence agencies were analyzing the data of the launch for additional information, the JCS said in a statement.
North Korea typically confirms such missile tests – which it says are part of its sovereign right to self-defense – in state media the day after they happen.
North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, ahead of an historic meeting between leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump in 2018.
Analysts said the latest missile tests did not mean denuclearization diplomacy was dead, but they highlight an inconvenient truth for the US administration: Pyongyang’s arsenal is advancing, posing new threats and increasing its potential bargaining power should talks resume.
“Every day that passes without a deal that tries to reduce the risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal is a day that it gets bigger and badder,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear affairs expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
Thursday’s launches came just days after North Korea fired several cruise missiles in an exercise that Biden said was not provocative but “business as usual.”
The Biden administration is in the final stages of its North Korea policy review, officials have said, and has been simultaneously signaling a hard line on human rights, denuclearization and sanctions, while making diplomatic overtures that have been rebuffed by Pyongyang.
It would be a mistake for Washington to ignore the advances in North Korea’s short-range missiles, especially after leader Kim Jong Un declared in January that his military had the technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads and place them on tactical missiles, said Markus Garlauskas, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and former US National Intelligence Officer for North Korea.
“Downplaying North Korean ballistic missile tests will not help US diplomacy with North Korea in any way, and would only encourage North Korea to further test the bounds of what the new administration can accept,” he said.
The missile launches highlight the threat North Korea’s illicit weapons program poses to its neighbors and the international community, the United States military’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.
The command said it was monitoring the situation and consulting allies. There was no official comment from the White House or State Department on the test.
Narang said even short-range ballistic missile tests would be a “step up” from the weekend cruise-missile test and allow North Korea to improve its technology while sending a proportionate response to recent US-South Korea military drills.
The launches overshadowed the start of the Olympic torch relay in Japan, beginning a four-month countdown to the summer Games in Tokyo.