World

Rival Koreas test missiles hours apart, raising tensions

The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday criticized South Korea's president and threatened a "complete destruction" of bilateral relations after both countries tested ballistic missiles hours apart.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga says firings threaten peace and safety of region

People watch a TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's missiles in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday afternoon. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Wednesday criticized South Korea's president and threatened a "complete destruction" of bilateral relations after both countries tested ballistic missiles hours apart.

The test missile launches underscored a return of tensions between the rivals at a time when talks aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear program are stalled.

Kim's sister, Kim Yo-jong, criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in for comments he made while observing his country's missile tests, including its first of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Moon said South Korea's growing missile capabilities will serve as a "sure deterrence" against North Korean provocations.

As Moon and other top officials looked on, the missile flew from a submarine and hit a designated target, Moon's office said. It did not say how far the weapon flew.

The tests came hours after the South Korean and Japanese militaries said North Korea had fired two ballistic missiles into the sea.

Self-defence motivation cited

In a statement carried by state media, Kim Yo-jong berated Moon for describing North Korean weapons demonstrations as a provocation, and warned of a "complete destruction" of bilateral relations if he continues with what she described as slander of North Korea.

She said North Korea is developing its military capabilities for self-defence without targeting a specific country, and that South Korea is also increasing its military capabilities. North Korea has often accused the South of hypocrisy for introducing modern weapons while calling for talks on easing tensions between the divided countries.

"If the president joins in the slander and detraction [against us], this will be followed by counter actions, and the North-South relations will be pushed toward a complete destruction," she said. "We do not want that."

The South Korean and Japanese militaries said the two short-range ballistic missiles fired by North Korea flew 800 kilometres before landing in the sea inside Japan's exclusive economic zone — a worrying development even though they did not reach Japanese territorial waters. The last time a North Korean missile landed inside that zone was in October 2019.

The launches came two days after North Korea said it fired a newly developed cruise missile, its first known missile test in six months.

North Korea wants to pressure U.S., experts say

The UN Security Council scheduled emergency consultations on the North Korean missile launches late Wednesday afternoon at the request of France and Estonia, diplomats said.

Experts say North Korea is building up its weapons systems to apply pressure on the United States in the hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions aimed at forcing the North to abandon its nuclear arsenal. U.S.-led talks on the issue have been stalled for more than two years.

"North Korea is trying to communicate a message that things will not go as Washington wishes, if it doesn't accept the North's demands," said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

He said North Korea may think it has an opportunity now to win concessions from U.S. President Joe Biden's administration while it is embroiled in a domestic debate following the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan.

Reaction from Japan, U.S.

Observers say Moon's government, which has been actively pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, may have taken action to appear tougher in response to criticism that it's too soft on the North.

This image, provided by the South Korea Defence Ministry, shows a ballistic missile being test-fired from a submarine in an undisclosed location in South Korean waters on Wednesday. (South Korea Defence Ministry/The Associated Press)

The rival nations are still technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted the North and ally China against the South and U.S.-led UN forces, ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the launches "threaten the peace and safety of Japan and the region and are absolutely outrageous."

Violation of Security Council resolutions

The North Korean launches represent a violation of UN Security Council resolutions that bar North Korea from engaging in any ballistic missile activities. But the council typically doesn't impose new sanctions when the North launches short-range missiles, like those tested on Wednesday.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, was in Seoul Wednesday for meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, and other senior officials to discuss the stalled nuclear negotiations with the North. (Choi Jae-ku/Yonhap/The Associated Press)

Wednesday's test launches came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul for meetings with Moon and other senior officials to discuss North Korea and other issues.

It's unusual for North Korea to make provocative launches when China, its last major ally and biggest aid provider, is engaged in a major diplomatic event. But some experts say North Korea may have used the timing to draw extra attention.

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