North Korea ups tensions with new projectile launch

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with some of his officers

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with some of his officers

North Korea has launched five projectiles into the Sea of Japan, its latest military manoeuvre amid concerns about its nuclear programme.

South Korea disputed Pyongyang’s description of the projectiles as “missiles” yesterday, saying instead the objects were smaller “short-range projectiles” — most likely conventional shells.

South Korean officials said the five projectiles flew about 200 kilometres after being launched from an area about 20km south of Hamhung yesterday afternoon local time.

Tensions have been soaring on the divided Korean peninsula since the North carried out its fourth nuclear test on January 6, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.

The UN Security Council responded earlier this month by imposing its toughest sanctions on North Korea to date.

In recent weeks Pyongyang has maintained a daily barrage of nuclear strike threats against both Seoul and Washington, ostensibly over continuing large-scale South Korea-US military drills that the North sees as provocative rehearsals for invasion.

Adrian Brown, reporting from Beijing, said yesterday’s tests follow the launch of ballistic missiles in the same area just a few days earlier.

“It’s the timing of this that is so interesting, because on Friday North Korea said it carried out two ballistic missile tests roughly in the same area,” he said.

“A few days before, the North Korean military warned that it was launching multiple ballistic missile launches and a nuclear warhead test,” Brown said, adding that the tests were a “slap in the face of China”, Pyongyang’s closest ally.

The launch of the projectiles is believed to be connected to the North Korean Workers’ Party congress in May.

US and South Korean intelligence assessments do not currently hold the North capable of launching missiles carrying a nuclear weapon.

Analyst BJ Kim from Hankuk University in Seoul said that Pyongyang was “raising the stakes” with an eye on possible talks with Western powers.

“At this point from the North Korean perspective it makes perfect sense to look tough . . . this is very predictable behaviour that we’ve been seeing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China was “deeply concerned” about the situation on the Korean peninsula.

“We hope North Korea doesn’t do anything to contravene UN Security Council resolutions,” she said.

“We also hope all sides can remain calm and exercise restraint and avoid doing anything to exacerbate confrontation or tensions.”

Speaking on China’s ability to rein in the North, Kim said Pyongyang had become increasingly dismissive of the pressure Beijing could put on it.

“They (North Korea) are trying to show to the world that China doesn’t have much leverage over them and that they’re on their own.

In a related incident, vice president Joe Biden says the United States is watching Iran “like a hawk” to ensure compliance with the landmark nuclear deal.

Tehran and six world powers, including the United States, agreed to the deal in July when Iran promised to scale down its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of painful UN and Western sanctions, including on its lifeblood oil exports.

“The incentives are aligned for Iran to uphold its side of the deal. We’re watching Iran like a hawk,” Biden said.

“Under this deal, Iran would never be allowed to pursue nuclear weapons, never, never, never,” he told the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby group.

“If Iran violates the deal, the United States will act,” Biden pledged.

A key provision allows the sanctions to be restored or “snap-back” immediately if Iran is found in breach of the agreement.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei earlier accused Washington of failing to respect the terms of the deal, in a speech marking Persian New Year.

The United States has lifted sanctions “on paper” under the deal which came into effect in January, “but they are using roundabout paths to prevent the Islamic republic from achieving its targets,” Khamenei said.

Iran has denied wanting nuclear weapons, saying its nuclear activities were exclusively for peaceful purposes such as power generation.

Yet in Israel – where many fear being targeted by Tehran – there are still widespread concerns about security in the wake of the agreement.

On the issue of US military aid for Israel, Biden vowed forthcoming assistance would be “without a doubt the most generous security package in the history of the United States.

“Israel may not get everything it asks for, but it will get everything it needs,” Biden said.

“It’s about making sure Israel will always exist, strong and capable as the ultimate guarantor for the Jewish people around the world.” – AFP

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