SEOUL – North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday, just days after its latest test and ahead of a visit to South Korea by US Vice President Kamala Harris.
Both launches are part of a record series of tests carried out this year by North Korea, at a time when South Korean intelligence warned that Pyongyang is very close to conducting a new nuclear test.
The South Korean military reported that it detected “two short-range ballistic missiles fired from the Sunan area of the capital Pyongyang.”
“Our military has strengthened surveillance and supervision, and maintains a state of maximum readiness in close coordination with the United States,” Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Japan’s coast guard also warned of a possible ballistic missile launch, citing information from the defense ministry, and warned ships to be vigilant.
The launches came after North Korea conducted another test on Sunday and as the US vice president is due to arrive in Seoul on Thursday, a visit that will include a stop at the fortified border between North and South Korea.
The White House indicated that Harris’ visit is a way to highlight the importance of the alliance with South Korea.
Seoul is a key ally for the United States, with some 28,500 US troops stationed there ready to help the country protect itself from North Korea.
The United States and South Korea have been warning for months that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is preparing a new nuclear test.
On Wednesday, the Seoul spy agency said Pyongyang appears to have completed “a third tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear site,” lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum told reporters after an intelligence briefing.
North Korea will likely choose a time between the next “Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 16 and the US mid-term elections on November 7” for its next test, Yoo added.
The isolated regime has carried out six nuclear tests since 2006. The last and most powerful of all in 2017, which Pyongyang presented as a hydrogen bomb, with an estimated power of 250 kilotons.
Seoul has also detected signs that the North is preparing to launch a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the presidential office said on Saturday, a type of weapon Pyongyang last tested in May.
“Today’s launch makes clear the North’s intention to take advantage of the Peninsula with a nuclear arsenal at its disposal,” Kim Jong-dae of the Yonsei Institute specializing in North Korea told AFP.
The retesting is “a precursor to Pyongyang’s aggressive stance over the next month, with missile launches and a possible nuclear test,” he added.