N. Korea likely to fire missile at third launch this month

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired at least one possible ballistic missile on Friday in its third weapons launch this month, officials in South Korea and Japan said, in apparent retaliation for new sanctions imposed by the Biden administration. for continuing test launches.

South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the weapon was fired to the east, but did not immediately say where it landed or provide other details.

The Japanese Prime Minister’s Office and Defense Ministry also said they had detected the North Korean launch and said it may have been a ballistic missile.

The Japanese Coast Guard issued a safety advisory, saying an object may have already landed. It urged ships between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, as well as the East China Sea and the North Pacific, to “pay attention to further information and remain clear in recognizing falling objects.”

The Biden administration on Wednesday imposed sanctions on five North Koreans for their role in obtaining equipment and technology for the North’s missile programs in response to the North’s missile test this week. It also said it would seek new UN sanctions.

The announcement by the Treasury Department came just hours after North Korea said leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday oversaw a successful test of a hypersonic missile that he claimed would significantly boost the country’s nuclear “war deterrent”.

Tuesday’s test was North Korea’s second demonstration of its alleged hypersonic missile in a week. The country has in recent months ramped up testing of new, potentially nuclear missiles designed to overwhelm missile defense systems in the region, as it continues to expand its military capabilities amid a diplomacy freeze with the United States.

In a statement from the official Korean Central News Agency of North Korea, an unidentified spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the launches of alleged hypersonic missiles from the north as a just exercise of self-defense.

The spokesman said the new sanctions underscore the hostile intent of the US to “isolate and suffocate” the north, despite Washington’s repeated calls on Pyongyang to resume diplomacy, which has stalled over disagreements over the country’s military. lifting sanctions and steps towards nuclear disarmament.

The spokesman accused the United States of maintaining a “gangster-like” stance and said the North’s development of the new missile is part of its efforts to modernize its military and does not target a specific country or pose a threat to the safety of its neighbors.

“Nevertheless, the US is deliberately escalating the situation, even with the activation of independent sanctions, not content with referring the DPRK’s righteous activity to the UN Security Council,” the spokesman said, using an abbreviation of North’s formal name. Korea, People’s Democratic Republic. from Korea.

“This shows that while the current US administration is trumpeting diplomacy and dialogue, it is still preoccupied with its policy of isolating and suffocating the DPRK… If the US takes such a confrontational stance, the DPRK will forced to be stronger and certain response to it,” said the spokesman.

Hypersonic weapons, flying at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, can pose a critical challenge to missile defense systems due to their speed and maneuverability.

Such weapons were on a wish list of advanced military assets Kim unveiled early last year, along with multi-warhead missiles, spy satellites, long-range solid-fuel missiles and submarine-launched nuclear missiles.

Still, experts say North Korea will need years and more successful and longer tests before it gets a credible hypersonic system.

The Biden administration, whose policies have reflected a broader shift in US focus from counter-terrorism and so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran to confrontation with China, has said it is ready to end talks with North Korea at any time without conditions. to resume.

But North Korea has so far rejected the idea of ​​open-ended talks, saying the US must first withdraw its “hostile policy,” a term Pyongyang primarily uses to describe sanctions and joint military exercises between the US and South Korea. to describe.

In an interview with MSNBC, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the North’s latest testing “deeply destabilizing” and said the United States was closely involved with the UN and with key partners, including allies South Korea and Japan, about a response.

“I think part of it is that North Korea is trying to get attention. That has been done in the past. It will probably continue to do that,” Blinken said. “But we are very focused with allies and partners to ensure that they and we are properly defended and that there are repercussions and consequences for these actions by North Korea.”

A US-led diplomatic effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program collapsed in 2019 after the Trump administration rejected the North’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Kim Jong Un has since pledged to further expand a nuclear arsenal that he clearly sees as his strongest guarantee of survival, despite the country’s economy facing major setbacks from pandemic-related border closures and ongoing US-led sanctions.

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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