SEOUL – North Korea launched three ballistic missiles off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea’s military says, as President Biden concludes his first presidential visit to Asia.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the three missiles were fired from Pyongyang’s Sunan area, where North Korea’s main international airport is located. Three missiles were fired at 6:38 a.m. and 8:42 a.m.
Wednesday’s launch marks North Korea’s 17th known weapons test this year, the latest in a series of unprecedented tests. Its last known weapons test was on May 12 when it launched three short-range ballistic missiles into the sea.
The test came just hours after North Korea reported its first coronavirus outbreak, calling it “the most serious national emergency.” The non-vaccinated country has ordered a nationwide lockdown and mobilized its military to distribute Covid-19 drugs.
Just 10 days after the country’s first outbreak was reported, however, North Korea’s state media changed its tone on the epidemic, boasting of progress in its response. During his visit to South Korea, Biden, along with South Korean President Eun Sook-eol, expressed a desire to provide coronavirus assistance to North Korea, but Pyongyang has not yet responded to the offer.
U.S. and South Korean officials have assessed that North Korea, despite the outbreak of the virus, could conduct a nuclear test or launch a long-range missile during Biden’s five-day trip to Asia, which ends on Tuesday.
Biden told reporters in South Korea on Sunday that he was “not worried” about possible North Korean weapons tests. “We are ready for anything that North Korea does. We are thinking about how we will respond to whatever they do, “he said.
North Korea may react angrily to recent pledges by Biden and the United Nations to increase allied deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which Pyongyang says is necessary to protect itself from the American threat. Future expansion of US-South Korean joint military exercises could ease regional tensions centering on rebel North Korea, experts say. Although the two allies have said the exercises are of a defensive nature, Pyongyang has said it is preparing for an attack.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that Wednesday’s missile launch “highlights the volatile effects of the DPRK’s illegal weapons program,” referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Eun called a meeting of South Korea’s National Security Council on Wednesday morning to discuss the missile test, his office said in a statement.