North Korean Missile Launches Stoke Tensions Amid U.S. Submarine Visit
Defense Ministers Denounce Launches
North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the eastern sea early Wednesday, a bold provocation that came only hours after a U.S. nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine docked in a South Korean port for the first time in 40 years, the South Korean and Japanese militaries confirmed.
Neither missile breached Japan's exclusive economic zone, according to the Japanese defense ministry. However, the launches further strained the region's fragile peace, drawing firm rebukes from both Tokyo and Seoul.
In a statement issued by South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the North's launches were strongly denounced:
"We condemn North Korea's successive ballistic missile launches as grave provocative acts that undermine the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the international community. These are clear violations of UN Security Council resolutions," the statement read.
The first missile achieved a maximum altitude of 50km (31 miles) and traveled a distance of 550 km (341 miles). The second missile also reached an altitude of 50km but covered a longer range of 600km (372 miles), Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada explained.
Japan swiftly lodged a diplomatic protest against the missile launches. This demonstration of defiance from Pyongyang comes just days after North Korea test-fired its Hwasong-18 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, an action Pyongyang stated was a warning to the U.S. and other perceived adversaries.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that the launches were concurrent with the inaugural meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) between Seoul and Washington. This group is committed to bolstering the U.S.'s "extended deterrence commitment" to South Korea, pledging the use of all its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, in defense of its ally.
The timing of the missile launches also aligned with the historic docking of the U.S.S. Kentucky at a naval base in Busan, marking the first visit by a U.S. nuclear-capable strategic submarine (SSBN) since March 1981.
In response to the launches, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command confirmed that it was closely consulting with its allies. While the missile tests posed no immediate threat to the U.S. or its allies, the command acknowledged the destabilizing influence of North Korea's ongoing weapons development.
Adding to the simmering tensions, an American soldier facing disciplinary action fled across the inter-Korean border into North Korea on Tuesday, currently believed to be held by Pyongyang, sparking another point of contention between the long-standing rivals.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, linked the missile launches to the arrival of the U.S. submarine and the first Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) meeting.
"North Korea's latest firing of ballistic missiles is probably unrelated to the American soldier crossing the inter-Korean border, but such an incident doesn't help matters," Easley stated, as quoted by media reports.
"As Pyongyang asserts its nuclear threats and capabilities, it undoubtedly opposes the Nuclear Consultative Group and the visit of a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine," Easley added, as he was quoted by media reports.