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North Korea fires suspected missile as S Korea breaks ground for ‘peace’ railway

North Korea’s first launch since October underscored leader
Kim Jong Un’s New Year vow to bolster the military to counter an unstable
international situation amid stalled talks with South Korea and the United
States.

The presumed missile was fired around 8:10 am (2310 GMT)
from an inland location, over the east coast and into the sea, South Korea’s
Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.

Hours later, Moon visited the South Korean east coast city
of Goseong, near the border with the North, where he broke ground for a new
rail line that he called “a stepping stone for peace and regional
balance” on the peninsula.

In remarks at the ceremony, Moon acknowledged the launch
raised concerns of tensions, and called for North Korea to make sincere efforts
for dialogue.

“We should not give up the hope for dialogue in order
to fundamentally overcome this situation,” he said. “If both Koreas
work together and build trust, peace would be achieved one day.”

The apparent missile launch by the nuclear-armed North
highlighted the challenges Moon faces in his push to achieve a diplomatic
breakthrough before his five-year term ends in May.

Reconnecting the two Koreas by rail was a central issue in
meetings between Kim and Moon in 2018, but those efforts went nowhere as talks
aimed at convincing North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons in exchange
for easing international sanctions faltered in 2019.

Kim’s New Year speech made no mention of efforts by South
Korea to restart negotiations or offers by the United States to talk, though
analysts noted that doesn’t mean he has closed the door on diplomacy.

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‘VERY REGRETTABLE’

South Korea’s National Security Council convened an
emergency meeting, expressing concern the launch “came at a time when
internal and external stability is extremely important” and calling on
North Korea to return to talks.

Japan’s defence minister said the suspected ballistic
missile had flown an estimated 500 km (310 miles).

“Since last year, North Korea has repeatedly launched
missiles, which is very regrettable,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio
Kishida told reporters.

The missile was fired from Jagang Province on the northern
boder with China, South Korea’s JCS said, the same province where North Korea
tested its first hypersonic missile in September.

UN Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile
and nuclear tests by North Korea, and have imposed sanctions over the
programmes.

In state media summaries of a speech Kim gave ahead of the
New Year, the North Korean leader did not specifically mention missiles or
nuclear weapons but said national defence must be bolstered.

For several weeks, North Korean troops have been conducting
winter exercises, South Korean military officials have said.

“Our military is maintaining readiness posture in
preparation for a possible additional launch while closely monitoring the
situation in close cooperation with the United States,” the South’s JCS
said in a statement.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has
become even more isolated, imposing border lockdowns that have slowed trade to
a trickle and have prevented in-person diplomatic engagements.

It has also stuck to a self-imposed moratorium on testing
its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or nuclear weapons. The
last tests of ICBMs or a nuclear bomb were in 2017, before Kim met with then US
President Donald Trump.

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But Pyongyang has continued test firing a variety of new,
short-range ballistic missiles, including one launched from a submarine in
October, arguing it should not be penalised for developing weapons that other
countries already possess.

MISSILE DEVELOPMENT

In a report last month, the US government’s Congressional
Research Service concluded North Korea was “continuing to build a nuclear
warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile
defences.”

Just hours after the North Korean launch, Japan announced
its foreign and defence ministers would hold talks with US counterparts on
Friday.

Speaking at a regular news conference in Beijing on
Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged all parties to
“bear in mind the bigger picture”, cherish the “hard won”
peace and stability on the peninsula and stick to the use of dialogue and
consultation to reach political settlement.

The White House, Pentagon and US State Department did not
immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s launch.

At a regular news briefing on Monday, State Department
spokesperson Ned Price reiterated the US desire for dialogue with North Korea,
saying Washington had no hostile intent and was prepared to meet without preconditions.

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