North Korea toughens its message with third launch in nine days

South Korean and US military intelligence continue to analyse the specifications of the latest projectiles launched

AFP/ANTHONY WALLACE  -   A man walks past a television report showing newsreel footage of a North Korean missile test.

North Korea today launched its third missile in the past nine days, just hours after threatening to respond "more strongly" to US sanctions this week against North Koreans linked to the regime's weapons programme.

Pyongyang's months of disinterest in dialogue, the renewed US willingness to tighten sanctions and the three North Korean weapons tests that have taken place in little more than a week bring back echoes of the tensions between the two countries in 2017.

The North Korean escalation and the unorthodox style of then US President Donald Trump led to a carousel of summits between Trump himself and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that eased tensions, although they eventually led to a stalemate in negotiations that persists today.

El líder norcoreano Kim Jong Un, a la derecha, mirando a los monitores mientras se realiza un lanzamiento de prueba de un misil el 11 de enero de 2022 en Corea del Norte PHOTO/Agencia Central de Noticias de Corea/Servicio de Noticias de Corea vía AP
PHOTO/Korea Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, looks at monitors as a missile test launch takes place on January 11, 2022 in North Korea.

However, the future diplomatic landscape on the Korean peninsula does not seem to be heading in the same direction at a time when the hermetic country remains more inward-looking than ever due to the pandemic. The fact is that it has had its borders locked down tight since January 2020 and has no vaccination plan in sight.

Launch from the Chinese border

Regarding today's launch, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement that the military "detected two projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles launched from near Uiju in North Pyongyang province (northwest of the country)", near the border with China.

The missiles were fired at 14:41 and 14:52 (5:41 and 5:41 GMT) in the direction of the Sea of Japan (called the East Sea in the two Koreas) and travelled about 430 kilometres, reaching a maximum altitude of about 36 kilometres, according to the JCS.

Principales emplazamientos de misiles y nucleares en Corea del Norte. AFP/AFP
AFP/AFP - Major missile and nuclear sites in North Korea.

South Korean and US military intelligence are still analysing the "detailed specifications of both projectiles".

For its part, the Japanese government has so far said it believes it is a single ballistic missile, while the Kyodo news agency reported, citing an official source, that the missile has fallen into the Sea of Japan, outside Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

On 5 and 11 January, the North Korean regime fired what it claims are hypersonic missiles, although Seoul and Tokyo, whose radar systems have initially had problems establishing the flight patterns of these projectiles, have insisted in their analyses that they are ballistic missiles that show a great capacity for manoeuvre.

Esta foto tomada el 11 de enero de 2022 y publicada por la Agencia Central de Noticias de Corea del Norte (KCNA) el 12 de enero de 2022 muestra lo que Corea del Norte dice que es un disparo de prueba de un misil hipersónico realizado por la Academia de Ciencias de la Defensa de la RPDC AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS - This photo taken on 11 January 2022 and released by the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 12 January 2022 shows what North Korea says is a test firing of a hypersonic missile conducted by the DPRK's Defence Science Academy.

Seoul has insisted that it is capable of "detecting and intercepting" these projectiles and that Pyongyang - which claims that with these tests it has successfully developed hypersonic technology - does not yet possess the knowledge or technology to manufacture this type of weaponry.

Sensitive moment in the region

For its part, South Korea's National Security Council (NSC) again deplored the North's test and stressed that such tests "do not help stabilise the situation" at a sensitive time in the region, with the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled to begin in three weeks and South Korea's presidential election two months away.

Today's North Korean test comes hours after Pyongyang threatened to respond in a "stronger and more determined" way to new sanctions that the United States passed this week against North Korean citizens it accuses of supplying materials and technology for the regime's weapons programme from abroad.

Mapa de la Zona Desmilitarizada que divide la península de Corea desde 1953 AFP/AFP
AFP/AFP - Map of the Demilitarised Zone dividing the Korean peninsula since 1953

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also said this week that Washington is pushing for the Security Council to impose additional sanctions on North Korea as punishment for all the launches it has carried out since last September.

Washington believes North Korea used ballistic missiles in these tests, in violation of previous sanctions resolutions passed since 2006 to punish North Korea's weapons programme.

In a message broadcast on New Year's Day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, somewhat surprisingly, avoided sending a message to the US and assured that the regime's priority is the domestic economy and the strengthening of national defence.

Kim himself last year rejected US offers to try to resume dialogue on denuclearisation, stalled after the failed Hanoi summit with Trump in 2019, arguing that Washington maintains a "hostile" attitude towards his regime.