SEOUL: North Korea on Thursday test-fired its first ballistic missiles since President Joe Biden took office, as it expands its military capabilities and increases pressure on Washington while nuclear negotiations remain stalled.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the launches threaten peace and safety in Japan and the region, and that Tokyo will closely coordinate with Washington and Seoul on the North’s testing activities.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, after meeting his Russian counterpart in Seoul, expressed deep concern over the launches and urged the North to uphold its commitments for peace. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for a swift resumption of dialogue to resolve the standoff with North Korea.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the two short-range missiles were fired at 7:06am and 7:25am from an area on the North’s eastern coast and flew 450 kilometres (279 miles) on an apogee of 60 kilometres (37 miles) before landing in the sea. It said South Korea’s military has stepped up monitoring in case of further provocations from the North.

A senior US official matched the information from South Korea’s military, saying that initial assessments suggest the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles.

This activity highlights the threat that North Korea’s illicit weapons programme poses to its neighbours and the international community, said US Indo-Pacific Command spokesperson Capt. Mike Kafka.

The launches came a day after US and South Korean officials said the North fired short-range weapons presumed to be cruise missiles into its western sea over the weekend.

North Korea has a history of testing new US administrations with missile launches and other provocations aimed at forcing the Americans back to the negotiating table.

Still, Thursday’s launches were a measured provocation compared to the nuclear and intercontinental missile tests in 2017 that inspired war fears before the North shifted toward diplomacy with the Trump administration in 2018.

Analysts say that the North would gradually dial up its weapons displays to increase its bargaining power as it angles to get back into stalled talks aimed at leveraging nuclear weapons for badly needed economic benefits.

Its unclear how the Biden administration would respond before it completes its policy review on North Korea in the coming weeks.

The negotiations over the Norths nuclear programme faltered after the collapse of Kim Jong Un’s second summit with President Donald Trump in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of their nuclear capabilities.

Since Trumps first meeting with Kim in 2018, the North has not conducted nuclear or long-range missile tests, although analysts believe they have pressed ahead with their programmes on both.

The North has continued short- and medium range missile testing during its suspension of nuclear and long-range tests, expanding its ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan, including US bases there.

Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from South Korea’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said the flight data released by South Korea’s military suggests the North possibly tested a new solid-fuel system modeled after Russia’s 9K720 Iskander mobile ballistic missiles.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2021

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