By KIM TONG-HYUNG
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile Sunday toward its eastern seas, extending a provocative streak in weapons testing as a U.S. aircraft carrier visits South Korea for joint military exercises in response to the North’s growing nuclear threat.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile launched from the western inland town of Taechon flew 600 kilometers (370 miles) cross-country on a maximum altitude of 60 kilometers (37 miles) before landing in waters off North Korea’s eastern coast.
South Korea’s military condemned North Korea’s launch as a “serious provocation” that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and “damages the peace and safety” of the region and the broader international community.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the launch did not pose an “immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies,” but still highlighted the destabilizing impact of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs.
North Korea has dialed up its testing activities to a record pace in 2022, testing more than 30 ballistic weapons, including its first intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017, as it continues to expand its military capabilities amid a prolonged stalemate in nuclear diplomacy.
The launch came as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its strike group arrived in South Korea for the two countries’ joint military exercises that aim to show their strength against growing North Korean threats.
In a discussion over the launch Sunday, South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Kim Seung-kyum and Gen. Paul LaCamera, an American general who heads the South Korea-U.S. combined forces command in Seoul, reaffirmed plans to bolster the allies’ joint defenses posture through training, according to South Korea’s military.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement Tokyo is “doing its utmost” to gather information on North Korea’s launch and confirm the safety of ships and aircraft, although there were no immediate reports of damages.
The North Korean threat is also expected to be a key agenda when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visits South Korea next week after attending the state funeral in Tokyo of slain former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
North Korea has dialed up its testing activities to a record pace in 2022, testing more than 30 ballistic weapons, including its first intercontinental ballistic missiles since 2017. North Korea is exploiting a divide in the United Nations Security Council that deepened over Russia’s war on Ukraine to speed up arms development.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has punctuated his weapons tests with repeated threats that the North would proactively use its nuclear weapons when threatened, increasing security concerns for its conventionally armed rival South Korea.
North Korea has so far rejected U.S. and South Korean calls to return to nuclear diplomacy, which have been stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of U.S.-led sanctions against the North and the North’s disarmament steps.
The USS Reagan’s arrival in South Korea came after Kim told Pyongyang’s rubber-stamp parliament this month that he would never abandon his nuclear weapons and missiles he needs to counter what he perceives as U.S. hostility.
Kim’s speech came as North Korean legislators passed a law that enshrined its status as a nuclear power and authorized the preemptive use of nuclear weapons over a broad range of scenarios where the country or its leadership comes under threat, spelling out an escalatory nuclear doctrine.
Speaking to U.S. and South Korean troops Saturday aboard the Reagan, South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said the dispatching of U.S. strategic assets to the region shows unwavering U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. He said the North would be met with an overwhelming response if it attempts to use nuclear weapons, according to a statement by his ministry.
Sunday’s test could soon be followed with a more provocative weapons demonstration as South Korean officials said they detected signs that North Korea was preparing to test a missile system designed to be launched from submarines. The office of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Saturday that he was briefed on such developments before his flight back home from a visit to Canada.
On Wednesday, 38 North, a North Korea-focused website, said its analysis of commercial satellite imagery shows multiple barges and other vessels gathered at the eastern port of Sinpo, where North Korea has a major shipyard building submarines. The report said the North was possibly preparing to launch a new submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles.
North Korea has been pushing hard to be able to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines. Such weapons in theory would bolster North Korea’s deterrent by ensuring retaliation after absorbing a nuclear attack on land.
Ballistic missile submarines would also add a new maritime threat to the North’s growing collection of solid-fuel weapons fired from land vehicles, which are being developed with an apparent aim to overwhelm missile defense systems in South Korea and Japan.
Still, experts say the heavily sanctioned nation would need considerably more time, resources and major technological improvements to build at least several submarines that could travel quietly in seas and reliably execute strikes.
Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama contributed to the story from Tokyo.