North Korea fired a pair of ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea's military said, ratcheting up regional tension just days after testing a cruise missile that is believed to have nuclear capabilities.
The launches came amid a flurry of activity on the peninsula, including high-level diplomatic talks and South Korea's testing of a newly developed submarine-launched ballistic missile of its own.
North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems amid a standoff over talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief. The negotiations, initiated between former U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, have stalled since 2019.
"North Korea fired two unidentified ballistic missiles from its central inland region toward the east coast, and intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are conducting detailed analysis for further information," South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
The missiles were fired just after 12:30 p.m. (0330 GMT), flying 800 km (497 miles) to a maximum altitude of 60 km (37 miles), the JCS reported.
South Korea's military has raised its level of surveillance, and is maintaining a full readiness posture in close cooperation with the United States, the JCS added.
The U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command said North Korea's missile launches did not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory, or allies, but highlight the destabilizing impact of its illicit weapons program.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called the missile launch "outrageous" and strongly condemned it as a threat to peace and security in the region.
Japan's Coast Guard said the missiles landed outside its exclusive economic zone.
Both Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in would convene sessions of their national security councils to discuss the launches, their offices said.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing that China hoped "relevant parties" would "exercise restraint."
Moon was attending the test firing of a South Korean submarine-launched ballistic missile when word came of the North Korean launches, its first ballistic missile tests since March.
Both Koreas have been developing a range of new missiles and other weapons, but North Korea's ballistic missile systems have been banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In November 2017, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the entire United States and declared it had become a nuclear power. It has since focused mainly on testing shorter-range missile and rockets.
Analysts say shorter-range missiles are designed to play a major role in the event of a war by evading missile defenses to strike targets in South Korea and Japan.
North Korea this year declared it was seeking to miniaturize nuclear warheads, which could potentially be fitted to tactical missiles.
"Despite its self-imposed pandemic lockdown, North Korea continues to prioritize military modernisation," said Leif-Eric Easley, international studies professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
The latest launch came as foreign ministers of South Korea and China held talks in Seoul amid concern over North Korea's tests and the stalled denuclearisation negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.
North Korea said it successfully tested a new long-range cruise missile last weekend, calling it "a strategic weapon of great significance." Analysts say that weapon could be its first cruise missile with a nuclear capability.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when asked about the earlier cruise missile tests, said all parties should work to promote peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
"Not only North Korea but other countries are carrying out military activity," he told reporters. "All of us should make efforts in a way that helps resume dialog."
In a meeting with Wang on Wednesday, Moon asked for China's support to restart dialog, saying North Korea had not been responding to offers from South Korea and the United States for talks or engagement such as humanitarian aid, Moon's spokesperson said.
The nuclear envoys of South Korea, Japan, and the United States were meeting in Tokyo this week as well.
U.S. envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said on Tuesday the United States has no hostile intent towards North Korea and hoped it would respond positively to offers for talks on its weapons programs.
The United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief. North Korea has refused.
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