North Korean missile launch fuels fears of Pyongyang getting tougher

North Korea fired a ballistic missile on Sunday, the South Korean army announced, a few days after live ammunition artillery exercises and amid concerns about a hardening of Pyongyang’s position.

“Our military detected a ballistic missile, believed to be of intermediate range, launched from the Pyongyang region towards the East Sea at around 2:55 p.m.” (0555 GMT), the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. release, referring to an area also known as the Sea of Japan.

The statement gave no further details, saying Seoul, Washington and Tokyo were analyzing the shot. “Our military remains ready by closely sharing launch information” with the United States and Japan,” he said.

Japan’s coast guard reported an “object, potentially a ballistic missile, launched from North Korea”, citing information from the country’s Defense Ministry, asking ships to be careful.

The last missile launched by North Korea, on December 18, was a Hwasong-18 solid-fuel ICBM-class missile, the most advanced it has, fired into the Sea of Japan.

In early January, North Korea carried out artillery exercises with live ammunition on its western coast, near South Korean islands where the civilian population was called to take shelter.

Change of tone

On Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un described South Korea as the country’s “main enemy.”

“The historic moment has finally come when we should define (South Korea) as the state most hostile to (North Korea),” assured Mr. Kim, calling South Korea “the main enemy” of Pyongyang.

The comments mark a shift in tone in North Korean politics and portend that Pyongyang will take a tougher stance in the future, analysts say.

Relations between the two Koreas are currently at their lowest point in decades.

At the end of December, Kim Jong Un ordered the acceleration of military preparations for a “war” that could “be launched at any time”. He denounced a “persistent and uncontrollable crisis situation”, according to him triggered by Seoul and Washington with their joint military exercises in the region.

Pyongyang succeeded last year in putting a spy satellite into orbit, after having received, according to South Korea, Russian technological aid, in exchange for arms deliveries for Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Russia and North Korea, long-time allies, have shown a rapprochement since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s trip to the Russian Far East in September 2023 to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Sunday that North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui will visit Russia next week at the invitation of his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

“More than just a test”

Last year, North Korea also enshrined its status as a nuclear power in its constitution and fired several intercontinental ballistic missiles, in violation of UN resolutions.

For Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at South Korea’s Ewha University, the latest missile launch is “more than just a test”, given the context in which it occurred.

“This comes immediately after the Kim regime escalated its belligerent rhetoric against South Korea and just before North Korea’s foreign minister visited Russia,” he said. declared.

“Pyongyang’s show of force should worry beyond Seoul, as its military cooperation with Moscow adds to violence in Ukraine and because (the North Korean regime) may be more willing to challenge the United States and its allies at a time when the world’s attention is focused on the Middle East” due to the war between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

The United Nations Security Council has adopted numerous resolutions calling on North Korea to end its nuclear and ballistic missile programs since Pyongyang carried out its first nuclear test in 2006.

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