North Korea Resumes Missile Tests After COVID 'Victory'

North Korea fired two cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea on Wednesday, South Korean news service Yonhap reported, just days after Kim Jung Un declared a "shining victory" over his country's COVID outbreak.

A military official from the South told the agency that the projectiles landed in the waters west of the Korean Peninsula early on Wednesday. The time of the test and the exact type of missiles launched were not disclosed.

The cruise missiles were reportedly launched from the province of South Pyongan, northeast of the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

"South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are conducting a related analysis," Yonhap was told.

At an August 10 political gathering in Pyongyang, Kim, the North's strongman leader, was revealed to have been "severely ill from fever" during the recent coronavirus outbreak, according to his sister, who blamed the virus on Seoul's propaganda leaflets and threatened to retaliate.

Kim's government has already conducted dozens of missile tests this year, up from single-digit launches in 2021. The latest tests were the first since June 5, and the first known launch of a cruise missile since January, Yonhap said.

North Korea Conducts Missile Test-Fire: South
People watch a television screen showing a file image of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station on August 17, 2022, in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea test-fired two cruise missiles toward the Yellow Sea on Auust 17, a military official in the South said. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

U.N. Security Council sanctions bar Pyongyang from further ballistic missile and nuclear tests, but the resolutions don't apply to conventional weapons development. U.S. officials have been warning for weeks that the North was ready to restart its nuclear program for the first time since 2017. Observers saw last week's declaration of victory over COVID as a sign that the tests would continue soon.

In South Korea, President Yoon Suk-yeol marked 100 days in office. Yoon campaigned on a pledge to strengthen the country's alliance with the United States in order to deter more destabilizing military maneuvers by the North. On Monday, South Korea's president publicly offered Kim's government economic incentives if he were to commit to scrapping its nuclear program.

This week, South Korean and American troops began preliminary drills ahead of the annual joint live-fire exercise Ulchi Freedom Shield, which will run from August 22 through September 1. The allies had previously downscaled their spring and summer drills due to the pandemic, and to support diplomacy around denuclearization efforts with the North.

Multiparty denuclearization talks between the U.S., North Korea and South Korea stalled in 2019. Frayed U.S.-China relations also have made any dialogue more difficult in recent years.

Bracing for a potential return of nuclear weapons testing on the peninsula, the U.S. Navy, along with South Korean and Japanese naval forces, conducted a joint ballistic missile search and tracking exercise in Hawaii between August 8 and 14, the Defense Department said on Tuesday—their first such drills in five years.

Pyongyang, which opposes U.S.-South Korea military training, has yet to respond publicly to the latest round of exercises.

North Korea Conducts Missile Test-Fire: South
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea delivers a speech during a news conference to mark his first 100 days in office on August 17, 2022, in Seoul. A military official in the South said the North conducted a cruise missile test early on August 17, firing two projectiles into the Yellow Sea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Following two days of the 21st Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue in Seoul, a Pentagon readout on Wednesday said senior leaders "discussed the [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] threat, particularly the increased volume and scale of DPRK missile tests over the course of the last year."

"With this in mind, and considering the evolving threat posed by the DPRK, both leaders committed to expanding the scope and scale of combined military exercises and training on and around the Korean Peninsula—starting with Ulchi Freedom Shield next week—to bolster combined readiness," the joint statement said.

"Both sides shared their assessments of activities at the DPRK's Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. The two sides affirmed that, should the DPRK conduct a nuclear test, the [Republic of Korea] and the U.S. will engage in a strong and firm bilateral response, to include options to deploy U.S. strategic assets to the region," it said.