A South Korean official told Yonhap, the news agency, that a night-time missile launch had been carried out on Tuesday and that there are signs of imminent further launches along the rogue state’s West coast. The latest missile brings the total number of launches to six in the past three days. The North has warned that it may continue to launch missiles until Saturday.
“The North appears to have launched a ground-to-ship missile into the East Sea shortly after 9pm Tuesday,” said the unnamed defence official. Pyongyang had already launched two missiles from its east coast earlier on Tuesday, after firing three on Monday.
It is unclear whether the missiles are test-launches, or whether North Korea is seeking to dissuade South Korean and US spy planes from hovering over its military installations in order to verify its claim of a nuclear test.
According to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, spy planes have detected steam coming from the nuclear reprocessing facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear plant, suggesting that North Korea has once again begun to extract plutonium for its weapons programme.
The North has already warned that it intended to being turning its spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium in protest at the international criticism of its rocket test on April 5. Yongbyon is thought to be capable of processing 200 to 250 tons of spent fuel each year and harvesting around 100kg of plutonium. In the past, the US has warned that reprocessing fuel is an action that could lead to a military strike on the country.
Pyongyang triggered global condemnation on Monday after detonating a nuclear bomb in a bunker six-miles underground, in the country’s north east. Experts are now scaling down their estimates of the size of the nuclear device, and a precise analysis will take days or weeks. However, a senior White House official said the explosion was “several kilotons”, a major advance on the North’s test in 2006.
The United Nations Security Council met on Tuesday to begin work on a response to North Korea’s actions, and Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN said a new resolution “will indeed take some time”. Mrs Rice said the US wanted “a strong resolution with teeth. Those teeth could take various different forms. They are economic levers, they are other levers that we might pursue.”
The Security Council is expected to produce its plan in the next fortnight, although it is likely to face opposition from China on any major sanctions, especially since only China has any major economic ties with the pariah state.
The Chinese government said that it was “resolutely opposed” to the nuclear test, but weakened the tone of its statement from the strong words it issued in response to North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006. It also called for a “calm response” to the crisis and expressed hope that the issue would be resolved through dialogue. China is North Korea’s biggest source of food and fuel, but receives access to North Korean minerals in return.
With tensions on the Korean peninsula high, South Korea said it would join a US-led initiative to intercept ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction, a move that Pyongyang has previously warned it would consider “an act of war”.