May 24, 2024

Seoul, South Korea

North Korea test-fired a presumed intermediate-range ballistic missile on Tuesday, South Korean officials said, its latest military maneuver since leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year declaration that he was ending a policy seeking reconciliation with the South.

Pyongyang made no immediate comment on the suspected test, which comes just over a week before key legislative elections in South Korea that will provide a barometer of support for conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has taken a hard line against the North during his two years in office.

North Korea, which has faced years of international sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, has ramped up its weapons tests and military exercises in recent weeks.

On March 19, Pyongyang said it had tested a multistage, solid-fueled rocket engine for a “new-type intermediate-range hypersonic missile,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Kim said after that test the development of the IRBM system was as important to North Korea’s security as its intercontinental ballistic missiles, which in theory could reach the United States mainland.

The KCNA report on the engine test did not give further details of the new hypersonic weapon, but North Korea has previously said it tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).

While all ballistic missiles reach hypersonic velocity – five to 10 times the speed of sound – in their terminal phase, an HGV can maneuver at high speeds as it nears a target, enabling it to evade detection and missile defenses.

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Meanwhile, North Korea’s military has staged a series of military exercises in the past few months as the US and South Korea also held drills, including their annual Freedom Shield exercise, which South Korea said focused on deterring the North’s nuclear threat.

Pyongyang’s shows of power included long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers, which pose a threat to the South Korean capital Seoul and other key areas near the border.

Ahead of the April 10 vote, some polls show President Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP) widely trailing the opposition Democratic Party – and a loss for the PPP could be seen to weaken Yoon’s leadership, analysts say.

Yoon, who has pushed for increased military cooperation with the US, also backs closer ties with Korea’s former colonial ruler Japan, angering many in a country where the scars of that occupation remain prominent.

But Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said Tuesday’s suspected missile test by North Korea won’t have much effect on the vote.

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“Firing an intermediate-range missile lacks the shock value of a full-range ICBM launch or a nuclear test, so it’s unlikely to swing any National Assembly seats,” Easley said.

South Koreans are more focused on domestic problems like healthcare reform and economic troubles, Easley added.

Tuesday’s suspected North Korean missile test also comes less than two weeks before Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida heads to Washington for a trilateral summit with US President Joe Biden and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

While the issue of an increasingly assertive China is expected to be front and center at that meeting, North Korea is also likely to be on the agenda for the three leaders.

North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui last week quashed recent speculation that Kishida could meet with North Korea’s Kim.

North Korea “will not allow any attempt of Japan to contact” Pyongyang, he said, according to KCNA.

CNN’s Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.


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