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North Korea launches ballistic missile, thought capable of hitting distant US bases

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, inspects as he tours munitions factories in North Korea on Jan. 8-9, 2024.
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, inspects as he tours munitions factories in North Korea on Jan. 8-9, 2024.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired a suspected intermediate-range ballistic missile toward the sea on Sunday, South Korea's military said, two months after the North claimed to have tested engines for a new harder-to-detect missile capable of striking distant U.S. targets in the region.

The launch was the North's first this year. Experts say North Korea could ramp up its provocative missile tests as a way to influence the results of South Korea's parliamentary elections in April and the U.S. presidential election in November.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it detected the launch of a ballistic missile of an intermediate-range class from the North's capital region on Sunday afternoon. It said the missile flew toward the North's eastern waters.

South Korea, the U.S. and Japan are analyzing further details of the launch as the South's military maintains readiness, according to the statement.

Japan's Defense Ministry also said it spotted the North's possible ballistic missile. The Japanese coast guard, quoting the Defense Ministry, said the suspected missile was believed to have landed in the ocean.

In mid-November, North Korea's state media said it had successfully tested solid-fuel engines for a new intermediate-range ballistic missile that observers say is likely designed to hit U.S. military bases in Okinawa, Japan and the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.

Built-in solid propellants make missile launches harder for outsiders to detect than liquid-fueled missiles, which must be fueled before launch and cannot last long. North Korea has a growing arsenal of solid-fuel short-range missiles targeting South Korea, but its existing intermediate-range missiles, including the Hwasong-12, are powered by liquid-fuel engines.

The last time North Korea performed a public missile launch was Dec. 18, when it test-fired its Hwasong-18 solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, the North's most advanced weapon. The Hwasong-18 is The North's only known solid-fuel ICBM and it's designed to strike the mainland U.S.

In recent days, North Korea has also been escalating its warlike, inflammatory rhetoric against its foes. Leader Kim Jong Un, during visits last week to munitions factories, called South Korea "our principal enemy" and threatened to annihilate it if provoked, the North's state media said Wednesday.

On Jan. 5, North Korea fired a barrage of artillery shells near the disputed western sea boundary with South Korea, prompting South Korea to conduct similar firing exercises in the same area. South Korea accused North Korea of continuing similar artillery barrage in the area for the next two days. The site is where the navies of the two Koreas have fought three bloody sea battles since 1999 and attacks blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.

Experts say Kim likely wants to see South Korean liberals pursue rapprochement with North Korea while maintaining a parliamentary majority status and for former U.S. President Donald Trump to be elected again. They say Kim might believe he could win U.S. concessions like sanctions relief if Trump returns to the White House.

In a key ruling party meeting in late December, Kim vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal and launch additional spy satellites to cope with what he called U.S.-led confrontational moves.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]