N. Korea missile launch tests Biden, Japan

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a ceremony to inaugurate the start of construction on the first phase of a project to eventually build 50,000 new apartments, in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released Mar. 24, 2021 by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). — KCNA VIA REUTERS

SEOUL/TOKYO — North Korea launched two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan on Thursday, Japan’s prime minister said, fuelling tension ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and ramping up pressure on the Biden administration as it finalizes its North Korea policy.

The missile launches highlight the threat North Korea’s illicit weapons programme poses to its neighbors and the international community, the United States military’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.

The command said it was monitoring the situation and consulting allies.

Japan lodged a formal protest through its embassy in China and said the test threatened peace and safety in the region, while South Korea’s National Security Council expressed deep concern.

Japan’s coastguard said the first missile was detected soon after 7 a.m. and flew about 420 km (260 miles), followed by a second 20 minutes later that flew about 430 km (270 miles), indicating the missiles were short-range weapons.

North Korea has previously test-fired missiles over Japan that were able to carry nuclear warheads and reach anywhere in the United States.

“The first launch in just less than a year represents a threat to peace and stability in Japan and the region and violates UN resolutions,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in comments aired by public broadcaster NHK.

The launches coincided with the start of the Olympic torch relay in Japan on Thursday, beginning a four-month countdown to the summer Games in Tokyo which were delayed from 2020 because of the coronavirus.

Mr. Suga said he would ensure a safe and secure Olympics and “thoroughly discuss” North Korea issues, including the launches, with US President Joseph R. Biden during his visit to Washington next month.

South Korean and US intelligence agencies were analyzing the data of the launch for additional information, the JCS said in a statement.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House will convene an emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss the launches.

There was no official comment from the White House or State Department on the test.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or its longest-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since 2017, ahead of an historic meeting between leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump in 2018.

The Biden administration is in the “final stages” of reviewing its North Korea policy, senior US officials told Reuters this week.

Analysts have noted a change in wording from the previous administration, emphasizing the “denuclearisation of North Korea,” rather than the whole peninsula — a more unilateral position likely to be anathema to Pyongyang.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North Korea policy review would come within the context of the administration’s strategy on China, North Korea’s only major ally.

“North Korea’s military activities after reaffirming ties with Beijing raise questions about how China is complicit in sanctions evasion and may be enabling the Kim regime’s threats to the region. This will increase calls in the US and elsewhere to sanction Chinese firms involved in illicit trade,” he said. — Reuters