The regime of Kim Jong-un on Friday launched a short-range ballistic missile into the sea off its eastern coast and also fired around 170 artillery shells into a maritime buffer zone separating the two Koreas, southern military officials reported, as North Korea continues to flaunt its military power amid escalating tension on the peninsula.
North Korean warplanes also flew close to the border with South Korea between late Thursday and early Friday, and Seoul responded by scrambling its own fighter jets to the area.
The military maneuvers come shortly after Kim Jong-un on Wednesday reportedly oversaw the test of long-range cruise missiles over waters west of the Korean Peninsula, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Acquiring these tactical nuclear weapons, which are much smaller and lighter than traditional ones, has been a priority for the North Korean leader since last year. KCNA reported Thursday that the country’s supreme leader expressed his “great satisfaction” at the test.
North Korea’s latest series of military exercises have heightened tensions in the region and raised fears that the country may conduct its first nuclear test since 2017. Last week, a North Korean cruise missile flew over Japan for the first time in five years, forcing the Japanese authorities to ask the population of two northern prefectures to take shelter underground or in buildings.
North Korea first tested so-called strategic cruise missiles in September 2021. International analysts expressed concern at the time about this type of weapon, as it could prove to be the country’s first nuclear-capable long-range cruise missile. According to Hong Min, a researcher at the Korea National Unification Institute, this fear was confirmed after Wednesday’s trial. The expert told the AFP agency that the latest test “means that North Korea is operating with a tactical nuclear capability in cruise missiles, which are more difficult to detect due to their low-altitude flight.” However, it is unknown whether Pyongyang has the capacity to build nuclear warheads small enough to be carried on such missiles.
Unlike ballistic missile tests, cruise missile tests are not included in the list of sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council against North Korea’s weapons program. Despite the fact that cruise missiles fly at a lower altitude than ballistic missiles, and although they are slower and have a shorter range than ballistic missiles, their trajectory is less elliptical and they can carry small nuclear warheads, so they are equally destabilizing in the event of conflict. For this reason, analysts reiterate that the launch of this type of rocket from North Korea also represents a threat to its neighbors.
A spokesperson at the office of the president of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, said that the missiles fired on Wednesday were “slow enough to be intercepted,” adding that Seoul will not hesitate to respond firmly to an escalation of provocations by Pyongyang.
On Monday, the North Korean regime released a report alleging that its recent missile tests have included tactical nuclear exercises to simulate an attack on the south. The South Korean military, for its part, has stated that it monitored the launches in real time and that it continues to analyze the data collected from the tests.