By KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile designed to be launched from a submarine on Saturday, the South Korean military said, apparently continuing a provocative streak of demonstrations of fire. weapons that could culminate in a nuclear test in the next few weeks or months.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the launch took place from waters near the eastern port city of Sinpo, where North Korea has a major submarine-building shipyard, but they did not immediately specify the distance traveled by the missile. It was also unclear whether the launch would have involved an actual submarine or an underwater test platform.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense also confirmed the launch, but did not immediately release flight details. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered officials to prepare for all “unforeseeable situations” and ensure the safety of planes and ships, but no damage was immediately reported.

The launch was apparently North Korea’s first demonstration of a submarine-fired ballistic system since October last year when it tested a new short-range missile from the 8.24 Yongung – its only submarine. known capable of firing a missile – in what was its first underwater test launch since 2019.

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The launch came three days after the South Korean and Japanese militaries detected on Wednesday that the North was firing a suspected ballistic missile near its capital, Pyongyang, and three days before the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who has vowed to take a tougher approach to the North’s nuclear ambitions.

The latest launch was likely North Korea’s 15th round of missile launches this year, including its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017 in March that demonstrated potential range to reach the entirety of the continental United States.

North Korea has clearly exploited an enabling environment to advance its weapons program with the UN Security Council divided and effectively crippled by Russia’s war on Ukraine. The unusually fast pace of testing activity underscores a tightrope strategy aimed at coercing the United States into accepting the idea of ​​the North as a nuclear power and removing crippling sanctions, experts say.

There are also signs that North Korea is restoring tunnels at a nuclear testing ground, where it carried out its sixth and final nuclear test in September 2017, as part of possible preparations for another. explosive test. Analysts say the North could use another nuclear test to claim it has acquired the capability to build small nuclear warheads that could arm its growing range of shorter-range weapons threatening South Korea and Japan or train a cluster of bombs on a multi-warhead ICBM.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un punctuated his recent missile tests with statements warning that the North could proactively use its nuclear weapons if threatened or provoked, which experts say portends a nuclear doctrine in escalation that would create greater concerns for South Korea and Japan.

Kim made one such statement at an April 25 parade in Pyongyang where he showcased the most notable weapons of its military nuclear program, including ICBMs and what appeared to be a new type of missile designed to being fired from submarines that appeared to be larger than previous models.

“Underwater technology (from North Korea) probably doesn’t allow staying at sea for long periods of time while avoiding detection. But the ability to launch ballistic missiles from a submarine would further complicate neutralization and defense missions against North Korean nuclear forces,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“The Kim regime appears to be preparing to test a miniaturized nuclear device it says will arm its SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), tactical missiles and multiple warheads on its ICBMs,” he said. .

North Korea has been pushing hard to acquire the capability to fire nuclear missiles from submarines, which in theory would enhance its deterrence by ensuring survivability to retaliate after absorbing a nuclear attack on land. .

Missile submarines would also add a maritime threat to the North’s growing collection of solid-fuel weapons fired from ground vehicles, which are being developed with the apparent aim of overwhelming Korea’s missile defense systems. South and Japan.

In recent years, the North has developed and tested a family of missiles named Pukguksong, which are designed to be fired from submarines or ground vehicles. Still, experts say the heavily sanctioned nation would need significantly more time, resources and major technological upgrades to build at least several submarines that could travel the seas quietly and reliably execute strikes.

The South Korean and Japanese militaries said the North Korean missile fired on Wednesday traveled about 500 kilometers (310 miles) at a maximum altitude of 800 kilometers (500 miles). North Korean state media has yet to comment on the test.

– AP writer Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to the report.

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