North Korea fires ballistic missile into sea, U.S. military says

North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, its first weapons launch in about two months and a signal it isn't interested in rejoining denuclearization talks anytime soon and would rather focus on boosting its weapons arsenal.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has vowed to further boost his military capability

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile toward its eastern waters on Wednesday morning. Above, a TV screen shows a news program reporting about the missile at a train station in Seoul on Wednesday. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, its first public weapons launch in about two months and a signal that Pyongyang isn't interested in rejoining denuclearization talks anytime soon and would rather focus on boosting its weapons arsenal.

The launch came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to further boost his military capability — without disclosing any new policies toward the United States or South Korea — at a high-profile ruling party conference last week.

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the missile launch "highlights the destabilizing impact of [North Korea's] illicit weapons program" but didn't pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory or its allies. It said in a statement that the U.S. commitment to the defence of its allies, South Korea and Japan, remains "ironclad."

South Korea's military said a suspected ballistic missile fired from the North's mountainous northern Jagang province flew toward its eastern waters. Defence Minister Suh Wook said the launch is seen as part of North Korea's military buildup, but that South Korea is analyzing whether it had any political intention.

In an emergency video conference, members of South Korea's presidential national security team expressed concerns about the launch and said resuming talks with North Korea is important to resolve tensions, according to the presidential Blue House.

The Japanese Defence Ministry also detected the launch. "We find it truly regrettable that North Korea has continued to fire missiles since last year," Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

China, North Korea's most important ally, maintained an even-handed response to the launch, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling for dialogue and saying "all parties concerned should keep in mind the big picture [and] be cautious with their words and actions."

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres reiterated that North Korea "should resume talks with the other parties concerned and that diplomatic engagement and diplomatic talks remain the only pathway to sustainable peace and complete verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

South Korean soldiers patrol along the barbed-wire fence in Paju, near the border with North Korea, on Wednesday. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

Last fall, North Korea carried out a spate of weapons tests in what experts called an attempt to apply more pressure on its rivals to accept it as a nuclear power in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions. The tests included a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a developmental hypersonic missile. Since artillery firing drills in early November, the North had halted testing activities until Wednesday's launch.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to resuming nuclear diplomacy with North Korea "anywhere and at any time" without preconditions. North Korea has so far rebuffed such overtures, saying U.S. hostility remains unchanged.

Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in his New Year's address Tuesday that he would continue to seek ways to restore ties with North Korea and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula until his single five-year term ends in May. He has recently pushed for a symbolic declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to reduce animosity.

A boy looks toward the north through a pair of binoculars near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas in Paju, on Wednesday. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

Diplomacy efforts collapsed

U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program collapsed in 2019 due to wrangling over how much sanctions relief should be given to the North in return for limited denuclearization steps.

Kim has since threatened to enlarge his nuclear and missile arsenals, though his country's economy has suffered major setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, persistent U.S.-led sanctions and his government's mismanagement.

"Rather than expressing willingness for denuclearization talks or interest in an end-of-war declaration, North Korea is signaling that neither the Omicron variant nor domestic food shortages will stop its aggressive missile development," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. 

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea might have tested a hypersonic missile or a nuclear-capable KN-23 missile with a highly manoeuvrable and lower-trajectory flight.

He said North Korea would likely move forward with its military buildup.