SEOUL — North Korea on Friday launched a short-range ballistic missile off its east coast, shortly after its war planes flew close enough to the border with South Korea for Seoul to respond with a show of force by deploying its own warplanes.
The launch was North Korea’s 26th weapons test this year that involved either ballistic or cruise missiles, more than in any other year, and the sixth such test this month. The combination of a missile test and air force maneuvers signaled that the North was intent on keeping tensions high on the Korean Peninsula.
Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from testing ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear weapons. But the North and its leader, Kim Jong-un, have used a period of stalled diplomacy with Washington to develop and test more weapons.
The launch on Friday — Thursday in the United States — took place from Sunan District of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and the missile flew to the waters off the east coast, South Korea’s defense officials said. They were analyzing data from the launch to learn more about the missile.
The North Korean military said on Friday that it conducted its missile test and air force maneuvers as a warning against “provocative activities” by the South. It accused the South Korean military of raising tensions by conducting artillery exercises near the border for ten hours on Thursday. The North Korean statement was carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.
The Significance of North Korea’s Missile Tests
Short-range ballistic missile tests by North Korea have become all but routine in recent months. In its last such test, conducted on Wednesday, Pyongyang said it had launched two “strategic” long-range cruise missiles off the west coast. It said they had been deployed by units in charge of what it called, in an English-language statement, “tactical nukes,” indicating that the missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
North Korea has also said that, in some of its recent missile tests, its soldiers had conducted rehearsals to launch nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missiles at South Korea.
Mr. Kim attended the recent weapons tests, saying that he felt no need for dialogue with Washington or Seoul. He also ordered his military to strengthen its “nuclear response posture and nuclear attack capabilities.”
The flurry of missile tests prompted the United States to send an aircraft carrier group to waters off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula last month and this month for joint drills with South Korea and Japan.
North Korea has reacted to such moves with military maneuvers of its own, accusing its adversaries of preparing for invasion through their joint exercises. It has also cited their drills as one reason it has been developing its nuclear arsenal.
Between 10:30 p.m. Thursday and 12:20 a.m. on Friday, about 10 North Korean military planes flew to 15 to 29 miles north of the border with South Korea, the South’s military said. The planes did not violate the no-fly zone both Koreas adopted around their border when Mr. Kim and Moon Jae-in, then South Korea’s president, met in Pyongyang in 2018. But the flights prompt South Korea to send up F-35A jets and put its air defenses on heightened alert.
North Korea conducted a similar maneuver last week, when 12 military aircraft, including eight fighter jets and four bombers, flew in formation and conducted air-to-surface firing drills in the airspace roughly halfway between Pyongyang and the inter-Korean border. The planes also flew close enough to the border for South Korea to dispatch 30 warplanes, including F-15K fighter jets.
The North Korean military suffers a chronic shortage of fuel and spare parts — a problem aggravated by United Nations sanctions and the pandemic — and it is rare for its air force to conduct a large exercise. But the country has traditionally conducted its own military drills, including weapons tests, when the United States and its allies perform joint drills.
On Saturday, for example, North Korea conducted an air-attack drill that it said involved more than 150 planes. It said it was the first time it had deployed so many planes at the same time during an exercise.
South Korea has said it is boosting military cooperation with the United States in the face of the growing nuclear threat from North Korea. Washington has offered reassurance that it would use force if needed to protect its ally, possibly including nuclear weapons. But on Thursday, the office of President Yoon Suk Yeol denied discussing redeploying American tactical nuclear weapons back to the South.
The United States says it withdrew all such weapons from South Korea in the early 1990s. But as the North’s nuclear threat has increased, some politicians in Mr. Yoon’s conservative People Power Party have suggested that South Korea should consider developing its own nuclear weapons or asking Washington to redeploy them.
Mr. Yoon has said, however, that South Korea has no intention of developing nuclear weapons.
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