North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the sea on Wednesday, the U.S. military said, its first weapons launch in about two months and a signal it isn't interested in rejoining denuclearization talks anytime soon and would rather focus on boosting its weapons arsenal.
The launch came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to further strengthen his military capability — without disclosing any new policies toward the United States or South Korea — at a high-profile ruling party conference last week.
South Korea's military said a suspected ballistic missile fired from North Korea's mountainous northern Jagang province flew toward its eastern waters. Defense Minister Suh Wook said the launch is seen as part of North Korea's military buildup, but that South Korea is analyzing whether it had any political intention.
Last fall, North Korea carried out a spate of weapons tests in what experts called an attempt to apply more pressure on its rivals to accept it as a nuclear power in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions. The tests included a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a developmental hypersonic missile. Since artillery firing drills in early November, North Korea had halted testing activities until Wednesday's launch.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said it is open to resuming nuclear diplomacy with North Korea "anywhere and at any time" without preconditions. North Korea has so far rebuffed such overtures, saying U.S. hostility remains unchanged.
U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program collapsed in 2019 due to differences over how much sanctions relief should be given North Korea in return for limited denuclearization steps. Kim has since threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal, though his country's economy has suffered major setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, persistent U.S.-led sanctions and his government's mismanagement.
During Kim's rule, North Korea has conducted 62 rounds of ballistic missile tests, compared with nine rounds during his grandfather and state founder Kim Il-sung's 46-year rule, and 22 rounds during Kim Jong-il's 17-year rule, according to South Korean and U.S. figures. Four of North Korea's six nuclear tests and its three intercontinental ballistic missile launches all occurred under Kim Jong-un's rule.