North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) off its east coast on Friday, according to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JSC). The missiles were launched at 2:41 p.m. and 2:52 p.m. Korea Standard Time, respectively. The missile launches came hours after the North Korean Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. decision to impose sanctions on six North Korean individuals who were involved in the North’s ballistic missile programs and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) developments. The U.S. also imposed sanctions on one Russian individual and a Russian firm.
The JCS said that two SRBMs flew 430 km at a maximum altitude of 36 km from Uiju, where the airfield is located. Based on the JSC’s description of the performances of the missiles, they could be the North’s KN-24 SRBM or a newly developed type of tactical surface-to-surface missile (SSM).
North Korea has not yet publicized its tests but will likely provide more details on the missiles on Saturday.
North Korea usually conduct missile tests early in the morning, but today’s missile test was conducted hours after it released the statement from the foreign ministry through the state media.
In the published statement, the foreign ministry said it will take a “stronger and certain reaction” on the U.S. “confrontational” stance after the United States levied sanctions as a response to its latest missile launches, according to the North’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
North Korea launched two self-described hypersonic missiles already this year, one on January 5 and one on January 11. On January 12, the United States decided to impose new sanctions in response and held open the possibility of taking more necessary measures against the North’s ballistic missile tests, which are violations of United Nations Security Council Resolutions. North Korea responded to the U.S. sanctions on its missile development program by testing two SRBMs soon after releasing the statement.
“The U.S. is coming out provocative again, finding fault with the DPRK’s exercise of its right to self-defense,” North Korea’s foreign ministry said. DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The ministry also said that the country’s missile developments are “just part of its efforts for modernizing its national defense capability” and emphasized once again that “it did not target any specific country or force.”
After North Korea’s hypersonic missile launch on January 5, Seoul downplayed the development by saying the North “exaggerated” the performances of the missile. Instead, South Korea assessed the projectile as a “general ballistic missile.” The next hypersonic missile test, however, showed the North might indeed have successfully developed its hypersonic missiles, as it launched a far more developed “apparent” hypersonic missile – in the words of the South Korean JCS – on January 11.
After Pyongyang conducted two self-described hypersonic missile tests within a week, Seoul expressed “strong regret” over the North’s missile tests and urged Pyongyang to renew dialogue. South Korean President Moon Jae-in also expressed concerns over the North’s missile tests, as the South Korean presidential elections are coming closer and these launches could affect the result of the elections.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday in an interview with MSNBC that the North’s missile tests are “profoundly destabilizing” for the Korean Peninsula. He was responding to a question on the North’s missile tests and the U.S. decision to impose sanctions on those linked to the North’s ballistic missile developments.
“I think some of this [missile launch] is North Korea trying to get trying to get attention,” Blinken said. “It’s done that in the past; it’ll probably continue to do that.”
The U.S. move to impose sanctions on six North Korean individuals was the clear reason for the North’s double SRBM tests on Friday, but Blinken’s remarks characterizing the North’s missile tests as a way of begging for U.S. attention might also have contributed. Pyongyang could have interpreted this as a profound humiliation.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, urged North Korea again to “refrain from further destabilizing actions” and “abandon its prohibited WMD and ballistic missile program” on Thursday. On January 11, six U.N. member states released a joint statement to condemn North Korea’s missile launch on January 5. North Korea conducted its “apparent” hypersonic missile test about two hours after this joint statement was released.
“North Korean foreign ministry’s statement is psychological manipulation. Not all states of the world have the right to shoot up ballistic missiles,” Lee Sung-yoon, a professor in The Fletcher School at Tufts University, told The Diplomat. “North Korea’s response is a classic ‘whataboutism’ smokescreen; there is no ‘double standard’ here.”
Experts predict that North Korea will keep conducting missile tests in the coming months, as this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and the 80th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the grandfather and father, respectively, of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
As the commemorative occasions could call for fireworks, there is a possibility that the North may utilize the U.S. and South Korea’s response to its missile tests as a pretext to justify its military activities, Lee said.
North Korea seems to have no interest in reengaging in nuclear negotiations under the Biden administration’s “practical and calibrated” diplomacy, which aims to completely denuclearize North Korea. After the “no-deal” Hanoi summit meeting with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019, Kim has made clear that he will never come back to the negotiating table unless the United States makes concessions and removes the so-called “hostile policy.”
The Biden administration previously said that it proposed detailed incentives to Pyongyang for returning to the table after finishing its review on North Korea policy, but the North has not officially responded to any proposals from the U.S. or South Korea.
“The Biden administration has principally failed to engage North Korea because North Korea does not currently seem interested in engagement, at least not at a price that Washington would be willing to pay,” Mason Richey, a professor of international and area studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, told The Diplomat.
Seoul has been urging Pyongyang to restore dialogue amid the stalled inter-Korean talks and refrain from testing missiles that can raise unnecessary tensions between the two Koreas. However, today’s missile test clearly indicate that Moon’s peace process has been de facto ended, meaning there will be no “end-of-war declaration” until before the end of his tenure in May.