N Korea continues missile launches as US redeploys carrier

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea launched two ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters on Thursday as the United States relocated one of its aircraft carriers near the Korean peninsula in response to Pyongyang’s earlier launch of a powerful nuclear-capable missile over Japan.

South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement that the launches were made 22 minutes from the north’s capital region. It said South Korea had stepped up its surveillance stance and was maintaining a readiness in close coordination with the United States.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also confirmed the North Korean missile launches and said the gunfire was “absolutely unbearable”.

Recent missile launches suggest North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is determined to proceed with weapons tests aimed at boosting his nuclear arsenal, despite international sanctions. Many experts say Kim’s goal is to get the US recognized as a legitimate nuclear state and the lifting of those sanctions, although the international community has shown no signs that this would happen.

The launches marked North Korea’s sixth round of weapons tests in less than two weeks, which has drawn condemnation from the United States and other countries.

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Japan’s Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said the two North Korean missiles launched Thursday morning flew 350 to 800 kilometers (217 to 500 miles) at a maximum altitude of 50 to 100 kilometers (30 to 60 miles) before falling in waters outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone landed.

He said initial analysis suggested the second missile may have been launched on an “irregular” trajectory. It’s a term previously used to describe the flight characteristics of a North Korean weapon modeled after the Russian Iskander missile, which maneuvers at low altitudes and is designed to be maneuverable in flight to increase its odds improve to dodge missile defenses.

On Tuesday, North Korea staged its most provocative arms demonstration in years, firing an intermediate-range missile over Japan for the first time in five years. The launch prompted the Japanese government to issue evacuation warnings and halt trains.

Experts said the weapon is likely a Hwasong-12 missile capable of reaching the US Pacific area of ​​Guam and beyond.

Other weapons tested earlier reportedly include Iskander-like missiles and other ballistic weapons designed to hit key targets in South Korea, including US military bases there.

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Thursday’s launches came as the US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan returned to waters east of South Korea in what the South Korean military described as an attempt to demonstrate the allies’ “firm will” to counter ongoing provocations and threats from the North.

The carrier was in the area last week as part of exercises between South Korea and the United States and other Allied training involving Japan. North Korea regards such US-led drills near the peninsula as an invasion rehearsal and considers training with a US aircraft carrier more provocative.

North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday that the Reagan strike group’s relocation poses “a serious threat to the stability of the situation on and around the Korean Peninsula.”

After launching the North’s intermediate-range missile, the United States and South Korea also conducted their own live-fire exercises, which have hitherto involved land-to-land ballistic missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped by fighter jets.

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But one of the tit-for-tat launches nearly caused disaster early Wednesday when a malfunctioning South Korean Hyumoo-2 missile rolled over shortly after launch and crashed into an airbase in the eastern coastal city of Gangneung. The South Korean military said no one was injured in the crash and civilian facilities were unaffected.

Following North Korea’s launch on Tuesday, the United States, Britain, France, Albania, Norway and Ireland called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting. North Korea’s foreign ministry statement on Thursday said it strongly condemned US-led efforts at the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions on the north over its recent missile tests, which it described as a “just countermeasure” to joint US-South Korean missile attacks called exercises.

North Korea conducted a record number of missile tests this year amid long-stalled diplomacy with the United States. US-led efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic and political benefits stalled in 2019 amid disputes over US-led sanctions against North Korea.

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Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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