North Korea Test-Fires Its First Ballistic Missile of 2024

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile Sunday designed to hit US bases in Asia for its first such launch of 2024, amid a pledge by leader Kim Jong Un to boost the country’s nuclear-strike capabilities.

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The missile was fired from an area near Pyongyang toward waters off the east coast and traveled about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a text message to reporters. The country’s military is working closely with its US and Japanese counterparts to analyze the details, the JCS said.

An intermediate-range ballistic missile is built to fly far enough to hit all of Japan, where the US has positioned tens of thousands of troops, and US military facilities in Guam, where the Pentagon says it keeps one of America’s largest munitions depots in the world.

North Korea said it fired off “an intermediate-range solid-fuel ballistic missile loaded with a hypersonic maneuverable controlled warhead,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported Monday. State media also released an image of the launch, while there has been no indication on whether Kim was on hand to see the test.

The firing comes after Kim presided over a policy-setting meeting of his ruling party at the end of December where he vowed to expand North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The country’s rubber-stamp parliament is due to convene from Monday to endorse the leader’s policies.

By testing a ballistic missile, Kim can demonstrate to his top cadres and the North Korean people that the country’s nuclear arsenal is making great strides in being able to attack the US, reinforcing the message in propaganda that its expansion is essential to prevent an invasion from American forces.

Read: North Korea Fires ICBM as It Criticizes US-S.Korea Nuclear Talks

North Korea’s last successful test was on Dec. 18, when it fired an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to strike the US mainland. The missile flew on a lofted trajectory and splashed down west of Japan’s main northern island of Hokkaido.

The latest launch adds to the pressure Kim has put on the government of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, which includes conducting live fire drills near a nautical boundary that has been the scene of deadly confrontations. Kim also said North Korea should “no longer make the mistake” of considering Seoul a partner for reunification.

South Korea’s spy agency said in a rare public statement in late December that it expects North Korea to launch military and cyber provocations as Kim’s regime aims to attract attention before South Korea’s parliamentary elections. Yoon’s People Power Party is seeking to wrestle a majority in the body in April from the progressive bloc led by the Democratic Party.

North Korea has a habit of conducting provocations to coincide with voting, as it rails against conservative politicians like Yoon who take a tough stance on Pyongyang. North Korea has called Yoon “a puppet traitor” and threatened to turn the Pacific Ocean into a firing range in response to greater military cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan.

Sunday’s missile launch came just ahead of an announcement by North Korea that it will send Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui on a trip to Russia from Monday to Wednesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Pyongyang in October in his first such trip in about five years. His visit was thought to possibly facilitate one by President Vladimir Putin after he accepted an invitation from Kim to make the journey to the isolated Asian state when the two met for a summit in Russia in September.

The Lavrov trip was part of a series of high-profile meetings between the neighbors that started in July 2023 when Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Pyongyang for an anniversary marking the end of Korean War fighting in 1953. The US and South Korea have for months accused Kim of providing arms and ammunition to aid Putin’s war in Ukraine, including sending shells and ballistic missiles. Pyongyang and Moscow have denied the charges.

Read: Why Putin Forged New Ties With Iran and North Korea: QuickTake

North Korea could be looking to step up its military cooperation with Russia even further by sending Moscow new types of tactical guided missiles, South Korea’s defense minister said in an interview with Yonhap News last week, adding Pyongyang may soon conduct fresh tests of its own missiles designed to deliver nuclear strikes.

The weapons suspected of being sent to Russia can aid the Kremlin in its bombardment of Ukraine, while sales could provide North Korea with a new stream of revenue for an economy isolated from much of world trade.

Kim has ignored US calls to return to long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks through which Pyongyang could secure economic aid in exchange for disarmament. Meanwhile, he has been busy modernizing his arsenal of missiles and conducting tests of systems to attack South Korea and Japan, which host the bulk of US military personnel in the region.

Pyongyang fired 30 ballistic missiles and three space rockets in 2023. They included five intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the US mainland. Kim’s regime launched more than 70 ballistic missiles in 2022, a record for the state.

--With assistance from Noriko Tsutsumi and Shinhye Kang.

(Updates with North Korean statement in paragraph four.)

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