North Korea on Sunday tested its most powerful missile since 2017, ramping up the firepower for its record-breaking seventh launch this month as Seoul warned nuclear and long-range tests could be next.
Pyongyang has never test-fired this many missiles in a calendar month before and last week threatened to abandon a nearly five-year-long self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range and nuclear weapons.
With peace talks with the US stalled, North Korea has doubled-down on leader Kim Jong Unâ€™s vow to modernise the regimeâ€™s armed forces, flexing Pyongyangâ€™s military muscles despite biting international sanctions.
South Korea said Sunday that North Korea appeared to be following a â€œsimilar patternâ€ to 2017 â€” when tensions were last at breaking-point on the peninsula â€” warning Pyongyang could soon restart nuclear and intercontinental missile tests.
North Korea â€œhas come close to destroying the moratorium declarationâ€, South Koreaâ€™s President Moon Jae-in said in a statement following an emergency meeting of Seoulâ€™s National Security Council.
South Koreaâ€™s military said Sunday it had â€œdetected an intermediate-range ballistic missile fired at a lofted angle eastward towards the East Sea.â€
A lofted trajectory involves missiles being fired at a high angle instead of out to their full range.
Japanâ€™s top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said Sunday that the ballistic missile â€œwas one with intermediate-range or longer range.â€
â€“ â€˜Time is ripeâ€™ â€“
Pyongyang has tested hypersonic missiles twice this month, as well as carrying out four launches of short-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
Last week, leader Kim was photographed by state media inspecting an â€œimportantâ€ munitions factory that produces â€œa major weapon systemâ€.
â€œKim has been withholding his appetite for testing and provocations,â€ Soo Kim, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, told AFP.
Now, however, â€œthe time is ripe, and North Koreaâ€™s continued missile firing will only throw another wrench into Washingtonâ€™s already high plate of foreign policy challenges,â€ she added.
The frenzy of missiles was also aimed at reminding the world that â€œthe Kim regime hears external discussions of its domestic weaknesses,â€ said Leif Easley, a professor at Ewha University.
â€œIt wants to remind Washington and Seoul that trying to topple it would be too costly,â€ he added.
The string of launches in 2022 comes at a delicate time in the region, with Kimâ€™s sole major ally China set to host the Winter Olympics next month and South Korea gearing up for a presidential election in March.
Domestically, North Korea is preparing to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the birth of late leader Kim Jong Il in February, as well as the 110th birthday of founder Kim Il Sung in April.
With reports of soaring food prices and worsening hunger, an economically-reeling Pyongyang recently restarted cross-border trade with neighbouring China.
And ally Beijing, along with Russia, this month blocked the UN Security Council from imposing fresh sanctions in response to the recent tests.