North Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of South's vote

North Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of South's vote

South and North Korean guard posts face each other as a South Korean national flag flutters in this picture taken from the Unification Observation Platform, near the demilitarised zone which separates the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, on Oct 6, 2022. (Photo: Reuters)
South and North Korean guard posts face each other as a South Korean national flag flutters in this picture taken from the Unification Observation Platform, near the demilitarised zone which separates the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, on Oct 6, 2022. (Photo: Reuters)

SEOUL - North Korea fired at least one suspected intermediate-range ballistic missile in a show of force that came just days ahead of national elections in South Korea for parliamentary seats.

North Korea launched what appeared to be an intermediate-range ballistic missile from Pyongyang at 6.53am on Tuesday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a message sent to reporters. The missile landed outside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Japan’s Ministry of Defence said in a statement.

South Korea’s military said the missile flew a distance of about 600 kilometres (375 miles) and Japan’s military said it reached an altitude of about 100 km. It said the launch appeared to be related to a new engine for a hypersonic missile North Korea tested earlier this year. 

These weapons are designed to deploy a re-entry vehicle for carrying a nuclear warhead that can change its flight path at high speeds, making them hard for interceptors to shoot them down. Experts had said North Korea's engine test was likely aimed at checking its reliability and extended burn time, which would allow a longer flight range.

This was the third test of ballistic missiles from Kim Jong Un's regime this year. His official media often comments on tests a day after the event. 

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launch "absolutely unacceptable" and in violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, Kyodo News reported.

North Korea last tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile in January. A missile of this sort is built to fly far enough to hit all of Japan, where the United States has positioned tens of thousands of troops, as well as US military facilities in Guam, where the Pentagon says it keeps one of America’s largest munitions depots in the world.

In March, Kim oversaw tests of multiple rocket launcher systems that fired off several nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missiles. South Korea said that test may have been a display intended for Russia. The United States, South Korea and Kyiv say the Kremlin has been using North Korean missiles for its assault on Ukraine.

South Korean Defence Minister Shin Wonsik has said North Korea is believed to have sent some 7,000 shipping containers of weapons since Kim and President Vladimir Putin met for a summit in September. They can hold about 3 million rounds of 152-millimetre shells, he said. North Koran and Russia deny the accusations despite a multitude of images from satellites showing the arms transfers taking place.

Russia in return is providing North Korea with food, raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing, Shin said. The food aid has helped Kim stabilize prices for necessities, he said. If the arms transfers grow, Russia will likely send more military technology to Kim, increasing Pyongyang' which is set for a national vote on April 10. Kim's regime has bristled at the government of current conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has taken a hard line on Pyongyang, and the latest launch serves as a reminder of North Korea's threats to security.

"The North Korean regime is trying to shake our society ahead of general elections through continued military provocations including missile launches," Yoon said after the launch.

Kim could be looking to stir up tensions to build support for Yoon’s rivals in the Democratic Party, a progressive group that favours rapprochement with Pyongyang. 

Kim guided military drills last month that included fire from an artillery unit capable of hitting Seoul, stepping up threats against his neighbour that coincided with it holding joint military training with the US. 

Pyongyang fired 30 ballistic missiles and three space rockets in 2023. They included five intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the US mainland. Kim’s regime launched more than 70 ballistic missiles in 2022, a record for the state.

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