North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles over the sea surrounding Japan in the latest series of tests.
According to the South Korean Armed Forces, reports indicate that the missiles were launched from an airport near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday morning (17), local time.
Japan has also confirmed that the test will be carried out. It was the fourth missile launch by North Korea in two weeks.
The United Nations (UN) prohibits North Korea from carrying out ballistic and nuclear weapons tests, in addition to having imposed harsh sanctions on the country.
The Asian country, however, frequently flouts the ban, and leader Kim Jong-un has vowed to strengthen North Korean defences.
On Friday, Pyongyang said it had fired short-range ballistic missiles, while days earlier it had conducted two tests of what it claimed were hypersonic missiles, which are harder to detect.
Test frequency and timing, this January, are unusual. North Korea tends to conduct its launches to mark events of major political importance in the country or as a sign of its dissatisfaction with military exercises held jointly by South Korea and the United States.
Launches generally serve to develop missile capabilities and maintain their operational readiness. According to Ankit Panda, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the latest tests seem to confirm the trend.
At the same time, “Kim Jong-un also has domestic considerations: at a time of economic hardship, these launches allow him to send the message that national defense priorities will not be neglected,” Panda told the BBC.
North Korea has struggled with food shortages and a weak economy. They are consequences of a blockade imposed by the regime itself, to keep Covid-19 away from its borders, which has suspended trade with China, its greatest economic and political ally – although there have been reports that this trade may soon resume.
Kim recently admitted that his country was facing “a major life-and-death struggle” and also said he would increase its military might, including the development of hypersonic missiles.
Negotiations with the United States, which wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, have stalled since President Joe Biden took office. The Biden administration imposed its first sanctions on North Korea last week, in response to some of the tests carried out in early January.
Monday’s launch could then be “a tougher reaction” to the sanctions, showing that “the North has no intention of being intimidated by the US,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha. Womans University (South Korea).
Does it have anything to do with China?
The launches come just weeks before the Winter Olympics, an extremely politically sensitive and prestigious event for China that is set to begin on February 4 in Beijing.
“I would imagine that China would not like North Korea testing missiles in its vicinity on the eve of Beijing opening its Olympics,” North Korea analyst Chad O’Carroll said on Twitter.
“If this continues, we must not eliminate the possibility of [a Coreia do Norte] I might be annoyed with China for something.”
Panda, however, said that while “Beijing may not be happy with these tests, they are likely to be tolerable enough”, considering they do not involve testing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles, which he called “China’s limits”.
With recent reports that North Korea may be resuming trade with China soon, “the timing suggests that Beijing is more than colluding with Pyongyang’s provocations; China is supporting North Korea economically and coordinating [com os norte-coreanos] militarily,” North Korea expert Leif-Eric Easley told the BBC.
“Given its strategic relationship with China, the North Korean leadership will likely end its missile tests and military exercises this early in 2022 ahead of the Beijing Olympics.”
“The timing also suggests that North Korea does not wish to be quiet ahead of the presidential election in South Korea. [marcada para 9 de março] or appear weakened as China sends aid across the border.”