North Korea fired a ballistic missile on Saturday that was likely launched from a submarine into the sea off its eastern coast, South Korea's military said, three days before President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol's inauguration.
The apparent short-range SLBM was launched from waters near North Korea's eastern port city of Sinpo at around 2:07 p.m., South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said, while the United States and its regional allies are bracing for the possibility of Pyongyang conducting a nuclear test for the first time since 2017.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also said North Korea fired what is believed to be an SLBM, adding it flew about 600 kilometers with an altitude of around 50 km.
It likely landed outside Japan's exclusive economic zone and the Japanese government has received no reports of damage, according to officials.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile from the vicinity of Sinpo, which is known as having a major submarine-building shipyard, traveled the same distance as assessed by Japan but with a maximum altitude of about 60 km.
North Korea has been seeking to advance the development of an SLBM that can carry a nuclear warhead and improve its ability to fire missiles from submerged vessels. Such weapons make it more difficult for neighboring countries to detect in advance than those launched from fixed installations.
Kishi said the missile test, the 14th this year by North Korea according to Japan's Defense Ministry, violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and should be met with "condemnation."
He also told reporters North Korea could complete preparations by the end of this month to conduct a nuclear test and the ministry has shared such a view with the United States.
The U.S. State Department said Friday that North Korea could be ready as early as this month to conduct its seventh nuclear test at its Punggye-ri test site.
Responding to the latest missile launch, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that the move highlights the "destabilizing" impact of North Korea's illicit weapons program.
While noting that the event does not pose "an immediate threat" to U.S. territory or its allies, the command said the U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and South Korea remains "ironclad."
North Korea last launched an SLBM in Oct. 19, which also flew about 600 km at a maximum altitude of roughly 50 km before splashing down outside of Japan's EEZ.
The latest test came three days after Japan and South Korea detected North Korea's test-firing of a ballistic missile from Pyongyang's Sunan area and ahead of Tuesday's inauguration of the South Korean president-elect, who has pledged to take a tougher approach toward Pyongyang.
North Korea's show of force came also as U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit South Korea and Japan from May 20 to 24, making it his first trip to Asia since taking office in January 2021.
North Korea has not carried out a nuclear test since September 2017 as it once committed to discontinuing its nuclear program and engaging in negotiations with the United States under former President Donald Trump.
But while global attention is on the war in Ukraine, there are signs North Korea is restoring underground tunnels at the nuclear test site, which it declared shut in 2018 to live up to the agreement to pursue denuclearization.
The country's leader Kim Jong Un has already hinted multiple times that such a commitment is no longer valid and carried out an intercontinental ballistic missile test in March, ending a self-imposed moratorium that paved the way for his first round of talks with Trump in 2018.
The most powerful ICBM to date, which North Korea said was a new type, flew about 1,100 km in range and reached an altitude of 6,200 km during its 71-minute flight, according to the Japanese and South Korean governments.
At a huge nighttime military parade in late April, Kim said his country will accelerate the pace of developing nuclear weapons and suggested they could be used if its fundamental interests are threatened.
The parade also showcased numerous weapons, including what may be new SLBMs and its largest ICBM, the Hwasong-17, which could hit the whole of the U.S. mainland.
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