North Korea fires 8 missiles amid signs it may be preparing for nuclear test

North Korea test-fired a barrage of short-range ballistic missiles from multiple locations toward the sea on Sunday, South Korea's military said, extending a provocative streak in weapons demonstrations this year that U.S. and South Korean officials say may culminate with a nuclear test explosion.

Launch was North Korea's 18th round of missile launches in 2022 alone

A TV screen shows a news program reporting about North Korea's missile launch with a file image at a train station in Seoul on Sunday. South Korea's military said North Korea test fired a salvo of multiple short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

North Korea test-fired a barrage of short-range ballistic missiles from multiple locations toward the sea on Sunday, South Korea's military said, extending a provocative streak in weapons demonstrations this year that U.S. and South Korean officials say may culminate with a nuclear test explosion.

Possibly setting a single-day record for North Korean ballistic launches, eight missiles were fired in succession over 35 minutes from at least four different locations, including from western and eastern coastal areas and two inland areas north of and near the capital, Pyongyang, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

It said the missiles flew 110 to 670 kilometres at maximum altitudes of 25 to 80 kilometres while reaching speeds of Mach 3 to 6.

South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Gen. Won In-Choul held a video conference about the launches with Gen. Paul LaCamera, an American general who heads the South Korea-U.S. combined forces command in Seoul, and they reaffirmed the allies' joint defence posture, the JCS said in a statement.

Sung Kim, U.S. President Joe Biden's special envoy for North Korea, also discussed the launches with South Korean officials while on a visit to Seoul, and they expressed "deep regret" that North Korea was continuing weapons development despite grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak at home, Seoul's Foreign Ministry said.

Japanese Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi said none of the missiles fell inside Japan's exclusive economic zone.

Defence exercises

The launch came a day after the USS Ronald Reagan, an American aircraft carrier, concluded a three-day naval drill with South Korea in the Philippine Sea — apparently their first drill involving a carrier since November 2017 — as the countries move to upgrade their defence exercises in the face of growing North Korean threats.

North Korea has long condemned the allies' combined military exercises as invasion rehearsals and often countered with its own missile drills, including short-range launches in 2016 and 2017 that simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean ports and U.S. military facilities in Japan.

In this photo provided by South Korea Presidential Office, President Yoon Suk-yeol, centre, attends the National Security Council (NSC) meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on Sunday. (South Korea Presidential Office/The Associated Press)

Discussing the launches with his national security officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol lamented that North Korea was firing missiles at a pace of once every nine days this year and vowed to strengthen the South's defence in conjuncture with its alliance with the United States, according to his office.

Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida called for maximum efforts to gather information about the launches and to ensure the safety of aircraft and vessels, although there were no immediate reports of damages.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said it was aware of North Korea's launches but assessed that the event doesn't pose an "immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies."

The launch was North Korea's 18th round of missile launches in 2022 alone — a streak that has included the country's first demonstrations of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years — as it continues to exploit a favourable environment to push forward weapons development with the United Nations Security Council divided over Russia's war on Ukraine.

Experts say North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's brinkmanship is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

South Korean and U.S. officials say there are also signs that North Korea is pressing ahead with preparations at its nuclear testing ground in the northeastern town of Punggye-ri. The North's next nuclear test would be its seventh since 2006 and the first since September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb to fit on its ICBMs.

On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden's special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, said Washington is "preparing for all contingencies" in close co-ordination with its Asian allies as he participated in a trilateral meeting in Seoul with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts over the nuclear standoff with North Korea.

Sung Kim, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, speaks during a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Kim Gunn and Japanese counterpart Takehiro Funakoshi at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Friday. (Kim Hong-Ji/The Associated Press)

Stalled talks

The United States has vowed to push for additional international sanctions if North Korea conducts a new nuclear test, but the prospects for further UN Security Council measures appear dim.

Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-sponsored resolution that would have imposed additional sanctions on North Korea over its latest ballistic tests on May 25, which South Korea's military said involved an ICBM flown on a medium-range trajectory and two short-range weapons. Those tests came as Biden wrapped up his trip to South Korea and Japan, where he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend both allies in the face of the North's nuclear threat.

North Korea in March launched an ICBM almost straight up at full-range capacity and saw it fly higher and for longer than any weapon it had ever tested, demonstrating the potential to reach the entirety of the U.S. mainland.

While Kim's ICBMs have garnered much international attention, he has also spent the past three years expanding his arsenal of shorter range solid-fuel missiles threatening South Korea and Japan. He has punctuated his tests with repeated comments that the North would use its nuclear weapons proactively when threatened or provoked, which experts say portend an escalatory nuclear doctrine that may create greater concerns for neighbours.

A news program on a TV screen reports on North Korea's missile launch with file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a train station in Seoul on Sunday. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of crippling U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea and the North's disarmament steps.

Despite deepening economic woes, Kim has shown no willingness to fully surrender an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival and is clearly trying to convert the dormant denuclearization talks into a mutual arms reduction negotiation with the United States, experts say.

Kim's pressure campaign comes as the country deals with a deadly COVID-19 outbreak across his largely unvaccinated autocracy that lacks public health tools.

GAVI, the non-profit that runs the UN-backed COVAX distribution program, said Friday it understands that North Korea has accepted an offer of vaccines from ally China and has started to administer doses. It isn't immediately clear how many doses of which vaccines the North received or how the country was rolling them out.