North Korea has fired eight short-range ballistic missiles towards the sea off its east coast, a day after South Korea and the US wrapped up military exercises involving an American aircraft carrier.
Possibly setting a single-day record for North Korean ballistic launches, the missiles were fired in succession over 35 minutes on Sunday from at least four different locations, including from western and eastern coastal areas and two inland areas north of and near the capital, Pyongyang, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said.
It said the missiles flew 110 to 670km (68 to 416 miles) at maximum altitudes of 25 to 80km while reaching speeds of mach 3 to 6.
In response, the South Korean president, Yoon Suk-yeol, convened a national security council meeting and ordered “expanded deterrence of South Korea and the United States and continued reinforcement of united defence posture”.
The meeting concluded that the missile launch was North Korea’s “test and challenge” of the security readiness of South Korea’s new administration, which took office last month.
The Japanese defence minister, Nobuo Kishi, said the act “cannot be tolerated”. Kishi said none of the missiles fell inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone but at least one missile had a variable trajectory, which indicates it could manoeuvre to evade missile defences.
On Saturday the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan concluded a three-day naval drill with South Korea in the Philippine Sea, apparently their first joint drill involving a carrier since November 2017.
Pyongyang’s launch also followed a visit to Seoul by the US point man on North Korean affairs, special representative Sung Kim, who departed on Saturday.
He met his South Korean and Japanese counterparts, Kim Gunn and Takehiro Funakoshi, on Friday to prepare for “all contingencies” amid signs North Korea was preparing to conduct a nuclear test for the first time since 2017.
Washington has made very clear directly to Pyongyang that it is open to diplomacy, Kim said during the visit, noting that he was willing to discuss items of interest to Pyongyang, such as sanctions relief.
Last week, the US called for more UN sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile launches, but China and Russia vetoed the suggestion.
Sunday’s launch was Pyongyang’s 18th round of missile tests in 2022 alone – a streak that has included the country’s first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years.
South Korean and US officials say there are signs that North Korea is also pressing ahead with preparations at its nuclear testing ground in the north-eastern town of Punggye-ri. The North’s next nuclear test would be its seventh since 2006 and the first since September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb to fit on its ICBMs.
The joint US-South Korean naval drills in international waters off the Japanese island of Okinawa included air defence, anti-ship, anti-submarine and maritime interdiction operations. Yoon, who took office on 10 May, had agreed with the US president, Joe Biden, to increase bilateral military drills to deter North Korea.
North Korea has criticised previous joint drills as an example of Washington’s continued “hostile policies” toward Pyongyang.