North Korea fires suspected long-range missile toward the sea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea test-launched a suspected long-range missile at sea on Thursday, its neighbors’ military said. The launch, which extended North Korea’s barrage of weapons tests this year, came after the US and South Korean militaries said the country was preparing to fly its largest-ever ICBM.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff did not immediately say whether the weapon involved in the launch was ballistic or how far it flew. But Japan’s Deputy Defense Minister Makoto Oniki said the missile, which reached a maximum altitude of 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles), may be a new type of ICBM.

The Japan Coast Guard, which warned ships in nearby waters about the possibility of falling objects, said it believes the missile flew in waters outside the country’s exclusive economic zone about an hour before it landed.

It was North Korea’s 12th round of weapons launches this year and came after it fired suspected artillery pieces into the sea on Sunday. Experts say the North’s unusually fast pace of testing activities underscores its dual goal of developing its weapons and pressuring Washington to deepen nuclear talks.

The North has also tested a host of new missiles, including a purported hypersonic weapon and the first launch of an intermediate-range missile since 2017 that can potentially reach Guam, a key US military center in the Pacific.

It also conducted two medium-range tests from Sunan, where the country’s main airport is located, in recent weeks, which the US and South Korean military later included as components of the North’s largest ICBM. Allies then said the missile, which the North is calling Hwasong-17, could soon be tested at full range.

Those tests followed another Sunan launch last week, which the South Korean military deemed a failure, saying the missile likely detonated shortly after launch. Details of the explosion and the possibility of civilian damage are not yet known.

North Korea’s official media insisted that the two successful tests were aimed at developing cameras and other systems for a spy satellite. Analysts say the North is clearly trying to simultaneously resume ICBM testing and acquire some level of space-based reconnaissance capability under the guise of a space launch to lessen international backlash to those moves.

The launch could potentially come on a major political anniversary in April, the birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.

The North’s earlier ICBMs showed potential range to reach the American homeland in three flight tests in 2017. The development of the larger Hwasong-17, first unveiled at a military parade in October 2020, may point to the goal of arming it with multiple warheads to overwhelm missile defenses, experts say.

North Korea’s series of weapons tests this year, coming amid an ongoing diplomatic standoff, reflect a determination to solidify its status as a nuclear power and much-needed economic concessions from Washington and other rivals from a position of strength, analysts say.

___ Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo.

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