• North Korea launched a suspected inter-continental ballistic missile on Wednesday.
  • The missile launch took place while Biden was in the air and on his way back from a trip to Asia.
  • The missile test was North Korea’s 17th missile launch this year.

North Korea test-launched what is thought to be an intercontinental ballistic missile and two shorter-range weapons into the sea on Wednesday, South Korea said, just hours after President Joe Biden ended his trip to Asia where he reaffirmed the US’s commitment to defend its allies in the face of the North’s nuclear threat.

If confirmed, it would be North Korea’s first ICBM launch in about two months amid stalled nuclear diplomacy with the United States. Breaking its 2018 moratorium on long-distance launches, North Korea in March claimed to have test-launched its longest-range missile as part of its development of functioning nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the US.

The launches took place as North Korea made a much-disputed claim that its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak was weakening.

After an emergency national security council meeting, the South Korean government said North Korea fired a suspected ICBM and two short-range ballistic missiles.

“North Korea’s sustained provocations can only result in stronger and faster South Korea-US combined deterrence and can only deepen North Korea’s international isolation,” the South Korean government statement said. “(Our) government is maintaining constant readiness to strongly and effectively respond to any kind of North Korean provocation.”

South Korea’s military said the suspected ICBM reached a maximum height of 335 miles while traveling 224 miles east after being fired from the North’s capital region. The Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North apparently lost the second missile 12 miles into the flight, while the third missile flew 472 miles, reaching a maximum height of 37 miles.

According to The New York Times, South Korean defense officials said the fact that the ICBM only flew 224 miles indicated that the North Koreans did not wish to launch a full-scale ICBM test while Biden was in the air and on his way back to Washington. 

In response, the US and South Korean militaries fired two surface-to-surface missiles to demonstrate the allies’ striking capabilities, adding that their militaries had detected North Korea’s preparations for the launches in advance. 

The US Indo-Pacific Command earlier said the missile launches highlight “the destabilizing impact of (North Korea’s) illicit weapons program,” though they didn’t pose an immediate threat to US territory and its allies. A command statement said the US commitment to the defense of the South Korea and Japan “remains ironclad.”

The White House said Biden has been briefed on the North Korean missile launches and will continue to be briefed as information develops.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said the launches were “an act of provocation and absolutely impermissible.” He accused North Korea of pressing ahead with its weapons development program while “ignoring the people’s suffering amid the spread of the coronavirus in the country.”

The launches were North Korea’s 17th round of missile firings this year. Experts have said the launches show North Korea’s determination to move ahead with its push to modernize its weapons arsenals despite the COVID-19 outbreak and apply more pressure on its rivals to wrest sanctions relief and other concessions amid dormant nuclear diplomacy.

North Korea’s unusual pace in weapons tests this year included an ICBM launch in March that was its first since 2017. North Korea described that launch as a demonstration of its biggest missile, the Hwasong-17.