North Korea fired at least three ballistic missiles on Thursday, including a possible failed intercontinental ballistic missile, stoking already high tensions on the Korean peninsula.
The show of force followed the most intense series of launches in North Korea’s history on Wednesday, when Pyongyang fired at least 23 missiles and 100 artillery shells west into the Yellow Sea and east into the Sea of Japan, which is known in Korea as the East Sea.
North Korea has fired more missiles within a 24-hour period this week than during the entirety of 2017, when it conducted its last nuclear test. South Korea responded to the salvo by firing three precision air-to-surface missiles into waters north of a disputed maritime boundary between the two countries.
“The missile launches today and yesterday indicate the intensity with which North Korea would look to use missile launches in an actual conflict,” said Ankit Panda, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank in Washington.
“Without de-escalatory overtures by the US and South Korea, I have concerns that this spiral will end up culminating in an actual military exchange between the two sides,” he added.
There was confusion on Thursday morning after North Korea launched what South Korea suspects was an ICBM on a lofted trajectory towards Japan.
The Japanese prime minister’s office initially condemned North Korea for flying the missile over Japanese territory, but defence minister Yasukazu Hamada later clarified that it had not in fact flown over Japan. South Korean armed forces assessed that the missile had failed in flight.
North Korea then fired two more short-range ballistic missiles.
There is rising concern in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo that Pyongyang is preparing to carry out its seventh nuclear test, and possibly more, before the end of the year.
The US state department condemned Thursday’s missile launches and stressed Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to defending Japan and South Korea, two American defence treaty allies.
“Together, with the international community, we call on [North Korea] to refrain from further provocations and engage in sustained and substantive dialogue,” said Ned Price, the US state department spokesperson.
Panda said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was probably responding to the US and South Korea’s largest joint aerial drills, which began on Monday.
Named “Vigilant Storm” and involving US F-35A and South Korean F-35B fighter jets, the drills focused on eliminating assets including enemy leadership and ballistic missiles.
Pyongyang warned on Tuesday that Washington would pay an “equal price” for conducting the drills. A senior military official added on Wednesday that the US and South Korea would “face a shocking incident and pay the most terrible price in history” were it to attack North Korea.
Pyongyang has also expressed anger at South Korean military drills conducted last month.
Panda added that the international environment had changed since 2017, when the US, China and Russia worked together to impose tough sanctions on Pyongyang in response to its ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
“Unlike 2017 and earlier, China and Russia have been willing to stand squarely with North Korea,” he said. “As a result, Pyongyang not only has no interest in engaging with the US and South Korea, but it sees no substantial costs to engaging in these risky demonstration.”
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington