SEOUL — North Korea on Saturday launched a ballistic missile toward the sea off its east coast, its second missile test in a week, South Korean defense officials said.
The missile, launched at 8:48 a.m. from Sunan, near Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, flew 168 miles to the east, reaching an altitude of 348 miles, the South’s military said. No further details were immediately released, but the data was similar to the data collected when North Korea last conducted a missile test on Sunday.
In that earlier test, North Korea launched what the United States and South Korea called a ballistic missile off its east coast. But the North said the test had taken place as part of its preparations to launch a military reconnaissance satellite, and its state media released aerial photos of the Korean Peninsula that it said had been taken by a camera mounted on the rocket.
During a Workers’ Party congress in January last year, North Korea unveiled an unusually detailed list of weapons that it was developing, including military reconnaissance satellites. But the U.N. Security Council has banned North Korea from launching a rocket to place a satellite into orbit because the country has used such rockets to develop its long-range ballistic missiles.
North Korea conducted seven missile tests in January, more than in all of 2021. It refrained from weapons tests for most of February, possibly out of deference to China, its neighbor and only major ally, which was hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
But with the Olympics now over, analysts had expected the North to start testing missiles again, both to advance its weapon technology and to gain diplomatic leverage with the United States, in hopes of eventually securing a reduction of international sanctions over its nuclear weapon program.
The resumption of North Korean weapon tests comes as the Biden administration is focused on the crisis in Ukraine, and as South Korea is in the midst of a presidential campaign. South Korea goes to the polls on Wednesday to elect the replacement for President Moon Jae-in, whose single five-year term ends in May.
On Saturday, Japan’s Ministry of Defense said the North Korean missile fell in waters outside its exclusive economic zone and that no damage had been reported from its ships.
Both South Korea and Japan condemned the North Korean missile test for threatening regional stability. Multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from developing or testing ballistic missile technologies.
“Now, with all eyes on the Ukraine crisis, is an opportune time for North Korea to create more problems for the U.S. and meddle in South Korea’s election,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
The Significance of North Korea’s Missile Tests
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North Korea has often been accused of attempting military provocations to influence elections in the South. Prof. Lee recalled that in December 2012, just a week before the South Korean presidential election, North Korea launched a rocket under the pretext of putting a satellite into orbit.
The South Korean election pits Lee Jae-myung, a progressive candidate who calls for inter-Korean dialogue, against Yoon Suk-yeol, a conservative who champions a tougher stance on North Korea.
Since the North does not want a hawkish right-wing leader to take power in the South, it will refrain from attempting a major military provocation before the election, said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
But once the election is over, it will likely step up weapons tests to celebrate the 110th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the North Korean founder and grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Cheong said. The senior Kim’s birthday is April 15.
Hikari Hida contributed reporting from Tokyo.