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North Korea fires ballistic missiles ahead of year-end meeting

North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles Friday ahead of a major political meeting to set policy for the new year, after ratcheting up tensions with a record number of launches in 2022.

The suspected ballistic missiles were fired at around 4:32 p.m. from an area near Pyongyang’s main international airport toward waters off North Korea’s east coast, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. They traveled a distance of about 250 kilometers and 350 km respectively before falling into the sea, it said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is finding space to ramp up provocations and conduct tit-for-tat military moves against the U.S. and its allies as President Joe Biden focuses on Russia’s war in Ukraine. The launch came three days after the U.S. sent a bomber and F-22 stealth fighters to the peninsula for joint drills with South Korea.

Kim has called for a meeting of his ruling Workers’ Party at an unspecified date in late December to review economic and political efforts for this year and decide on policy plans for 2023. The North Korean leader has shown no interest in returning to nuclear disarmament talks that have been stalled for almost three years, and has stood firmly to a pledge to never give up his atomic arsenal.

This year, Kim’s regime has fired off 70 ballistic missiles, the most in his decade in power and in defiance of United Nations resolutions that prohibit the launches.

North Korea tested a new rocket engine earlier this month and on Dec. 18 fired off what South Korea said were two medium-range ballistic missiles. The joint U.S.-South Korean air drills followed those launches.

The North Korean leader has been modernizing his inventory of missiles over the past several years to make them easier to hide, quicker to deploy and more difficult to shoot down. This year, he has tested missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, as well as firing off intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges to hit the American mainland.

North Korea on Nov. 18 test-fired an ICBM with Kim’s daughter on hand for the launch, marking her first official appearance in state media. The move signaled that there’s another generation ready to take over the Cold War’s last continuous family dynasty and it will depend on nuclear weapons for its survival.

North Korea may soon raise regional tensions even higher with its first nuclear test since 2017. The U.S., South Korea and Japan have said for months that Pyongyang appears ready to test a device at any time and the three have pledged stern and coordinated punishments if Kim goes ahead with an atomic test.

The U.S. push to isolate Vladimir Putin, coupled with increasing animosity toward China, has allowed Kim to strengthen his nuclear deterrent without fear of facing more sanctions at the UN Security Council. There’s almost no chance Russia or China, which have veto power at the council, would support any measures against North Korea, as they did in 2017 following a series of weapons tests that prompted former President Donald Trump to warn of “fire and fury.”

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©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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