North Korea fired a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile into waters east of the Korean peninsula on Friday morning, a day after Pyongyang warned the US against bolstering its protection of South Korea and Japan.
Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida said the missile was estimated to have landed west of Hokkaido in waters claimed by Tokyo as part of its exclusive economic zone.
The launch, described by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff as a likely ICBM, is the latest in an unprecedented barrage of North Korean missiles, amid heightened tensions as the US seeks to assure its east Asian allies of its commitment to their defence.
North Korea fired at least 33 missiles and 180 artillery shells in the first week of November alone, as it responded to joint aerial drills held by the US and South Korea.
On Sunday, US president Joe Biden met Kishida and South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol for a trilateral summit, after which the three leaders declared they were “more aligned than ever” on North Korea’s “provocative behaviour”.
The summit drew an angry response from Pyongyang, with North Korean foreign minister Choe Son Hui warning on Thursday that “the keener the US is on the ‘bolstered offer of extended deterrence’ to its allies and the more they intensify provocative and bluffing military activities on the Korean peninsula and in the region, the fiercer [North Korea’s] military counteraction will be, in direct proportion to it”.
She added that the peninsula was entering a more “unpredictable phase”. Hours later, North Korea fired its latest short-range ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, which is known in Korea as the East Sea. That was followed on Friday by the suspected ICBM launch. North Korea’s ICBMs are widely regarded as capable of striking the US mainland.
There is rising concern in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo that Pyongyang is preparing to carry out its seventh nuclear test, and possibly others, before the end of the year.
Biden said after a meeting with Xi Jinping on Monday that he had warned the Chinese leader that China had an “obligation” to dissuade North Korea from conducting more nuclear tests, and that failure to do so would mean that the US “would have to take certain actions that would be more defensive on our behalf”.
“We will do what it needs to defend our capacity, to defend ourselves and our allies — South Korea, as well as Japan,” said Biden, noting that it would mean that “we’d be more up in the face of China” as a result.
“It wouldn’t be because of China, it’d be because of what was going on in North Korea,” Biden added, while acknowledging that Beijing’s leverage over its communist ally was limited.
Earlier this month, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that Washington plans to deploy more nuclear-capable warplanes around the Korean peninsula in an effort to boost deterrence.
Some analysts have questioned whether it is wise for the US and South Korea to respond to North Korean missile launches with military actions of their own, arguing that Washington and Seoul risked feeding a cycle of escalation.
But Go Myong-hyun, senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said the response to Pyongyang’s shows of strength was “less about deterring North Korea and more about assuring South Korea and Japan that the US is prepared to defend them in the event of a miscalculation or conflict”.