North Korea's Military Buildup Continues With Latest Ballistic Missile Launch

North Korea, in its first launch in two months, fired a ballistic missile into the sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, a move that could have more meaning than simply testing new equipment.

Some are speculating that it is a sign that North Korea is not interested in reinvigorating denuclearization talks with the West. It also comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reiterated his commitment to strengthening the nation's army at a Workers' Party conference last week.

"Rather than expressing willingness for denuclearization talks or interest in an end-of-war declaration, North Korea is signaling that neither the Omicron variant nor domestic food shortages will stop its aggressive missile development," Ewha Womans University professor Leif-Eric Easley said.

U.S. talks with North Korea to end its nuclear program ended in 2019 when Kim refused over sanctions relief. He later said he might actually increase the arsenal.

Kim has conducted 62 rounds of ballistic missile tests since taking over from his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2012. He has conducted twice as many tests as his father (22 rounds in 17 years) and grandfather, Kim Il Sung (nine rounds in 46 years), combined.

Missile Launch
North Korea on Wednesday fired what appears to be a ballistic missile toward the East Sea, South Korea's military said. Above, people watch a TV at the Seoul Railway Station showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch, on January 5, 2022, in Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the ballistic missile launch "highlights the destabilizing impact of [North Korea's] illicit weapons program" but didn't pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory or its allies. It said in a statement that the U.S. commitment to the defense of its allies, South Korea and Japan, remains "ironclad."

South Korea's military said a suspected ballistic missile fired from North Korea's mountainous northern Jagang province flew toward its eastern waters. Defense Minister Suh Wook said the launch is seen as part of North Korea's military buildup, but that South Korea is analyzing whether it had any political intention.

In an emergency video conference, members of South Korea's presidential national security team expressed concerns about the launch and said resuming talks with North Korea is important to resolve tensions, according to the presidential Blue House.

The Japanese Defense Ministry also detected the North Korean launch. "We find it truly regrettable that North Korea has continued to fire missiles since last year," Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

China, North Korea's most important ally, maintained an even-handed response to the launch, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling for dialogue and saying "all parties concerned should keep in mind the big picture [and] be cautious with their words and actions."

Last fall, North Korea carried out a spate of weapons tests in what experts called an attempt to apply more pressure on its rivals to accept it as a nuclear power in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions. The tests included a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a developmental hypersonic missile. Since artillery firing drills in early November, North Korea had halted testing activities until Wednesday's launch.

The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to resuming nuclear diplomacy with North Korea "anywhere and at any time" without preconditions. North Korea has so far rebuffed such overtures, saying U.S. hostility remains unchanged.

Outgoing South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in his New Year's address Tuesday that he would continue to seek ways to restore ties with North Korea and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula until his single five-year term ends in May. He has recently pushed for a symbolic declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to reduce animosity.

Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea might have tested a hypersonic missile or a nuclear-capable KN-23 missile with a highly maneuverable and lower-trajectory flight. He said North Korea would likely move forward with its military buildup.

Japanese media cited Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi as saying the missile was presumed to have landed outside Japan's exclusive economic zone. U.N. Security Council resolutions ban any ballistic activities by North Korea, but the council typically doesn't impose new sanctions for short-range missile launches.

Kim marked 10 years in power last month. Since assuming control after his father and longtime ruler Kim Jong Il's death in December 2011, Kim Jong Un has established absolute power at home and staged an unusually large number of weapons tests as part of efforts to build nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the American mainland.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

SK Passerby
People watch a television news broadcast showing file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, on January 5, 2022, after North Korea fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile into the sea, according to the South Korean military. Photo by Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images