SEOUL—North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Thursday, shortly after the U.S. said at the United Nations that Pyongyang is feeling emboldened.
The Thursday test marked the Kim Jong Un regime’s sixth weapons launch in 12 days, adding to what is already a historic year of missile tests.
The two missiles were fired between 6:01 a.m. and 6:23 a.m. Thursday local time from the Samsok area in Pyongyang, South Korea’s military said. One missile reached an altitude of about 62 miles and traveled 217 miles, Japan’s Defense Ministry said, with the other flying lower at an altitude of 31 miles but traveling about 500 miles.
At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said China and Russia had gone out of their way to justify North Korea’s repeated provocations and are blocking any attempt to penalize them. Beijing and Moscow support relaxing penalties against Pyongyang.
North Korea “has enjoyed blanket protection” from Russia and China, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said. “Pyongyang clearly feels emboldened.”
At the U.N. meeting, China and Russia reiterated their viewpoint that the Security Council shouldn’t turn to pressure to resolve the North Korea issue and urged dialogue. Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, said new sanctions are a dead end and would produce zero results.
The meeting was follow-up to the Kim regime’s intermediate-range ballistic missile test on Tuesday, which traveled over Japan, the first to do so in five years and a major provocation. Japan issued emergency alerts asking citizens to take shelter.
Thursday’s launch represented North Korea’s 23rd missile test of the year. Pyongyang’s pace of weapons testing has quickened after a relatively quiet summer, as the impoverished country dealt with its first Covid-19 outbreak.
The recent missile barrage is a predictable trajectory of psychological manipulation by North Korea, allowing the Kim regime to show South Korea, Japan and ultimately the U.S. that it has the ability to hit them with pinpoint accuracy, said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
“Graduated escalation instills in its target gnawing uncertainty,” Prof. Lee said. “The short-range missiles are a prelude to a greater provocation already planned.”
The escalation in North Korean provocations is unlikely to stop. North Korea in the coming weeks could conduct its first nuclear test in five years, American and South Korean officials have said. Separately, recent activity at Pyongyang’s main naval base, observed in satellite imagery, suggests a submarine-launched ballistic missile could soon be in the works, the military in Seoul said.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called Thursday’s launch unacceptable. Mr. Kishida is scheduled to hold a phone call later on Thursday with South Korean President Yoon Suk -yeol to discuss security issues and North Korea’s recent missile-test barrage. Ties between Seoul and Tokyo have been strained in recent years over historical issues. But after Mr. Yoon took office in May, the two countries have improved diplomacy and increased participation in trilateral military drills with the U.S.
That includes three-way maritime exercises last week and plans to conduct more on Thursday, following a redeployment to the waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan of a U.S. warship, the USS Ronald Reagan. The return of the U.S. aircraft carrier shows a strengthened response by Washington and its allies to the Kim regime’s provocations, South Korea’s National Security Council said after an emergency meeting on Thursday.
On Thursday, North Korea’s foreign ministry said its recent weapons tests are “just counteraction measures” to the U.S. warship’s deployment and a return in August to large-scale field exercises by Washington and Seoul. The U.S. and its allies are “escalating the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula,” the foreign ministry said.
The foreign ministry statement provided a rare lens into the Kim regime’s rationale for its weapons testing. North Korea’s missile launches often serve a variety of purposes, from arms development to domestic politics to external messaging. But the activity since Sept. 25 has appeared more responsive to U.S. activities in the region.
North Korea’s weapons tests have been timed around the arrival of the USS Ronald Reagan to a South Korean port city, a visit by Vice President Kamala Harris to the region and the trilateral anti-submarine exercises involving Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.
Pyongyang has repeatedly rejected overtures by the Biden administration to meet. Last month, North Korea declared its nuclear status irreversible and passed a new law allowing pre-emptive nuclear strikes if the leadership comes under attack.
The U.S. and North Korea haven’t held formal nuclear talks in three years.
—Chieko Tsuneoka in Tokyo contributed to this article.
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