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North Korea Launches Ballistic Missile, the South Says

SEOUL — North Korea launched a ballistic missile off its east coast on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, days after the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said his country should focus on bolstering food production in the new year while continuing to strengthen its military power.

South Korea’s military said its analysts and U.S. officials were studying the trajectory and other flight data of the North Korean missile to learn more.

When North Korea last conducted a missile test, on Oct. 19, it tested a newly developed submarine-launched ballistic missile off its east coast in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions banning the country from developing or testing ballistic missiles or nuclear devices.

“It’s truly regrettable that North Korea has repeatedly launched missiles since last year​,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan said​ on Wednesday​. “The Japanese government will strengthen warning and surveillance more than ever.”

The missile was estimated to have flown 310.7 miles before plunging into the waters between North Korea and Japan, Japan’s defense minister, Nobuo Kishi, said.

The office of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea repeated its call for dialogue with the North, noting that its latest missile test took place when the region could hardly afford instability. China is set to host the Winter Olympics in February, and South Korea will hold its presidential election on March 9.

North Korea launched its missile hours before Mr. Moon attended a groundbreaking ceremony on the east coast, where engineers started work on Wednesday to extend the South’s rail line by 69 miles to the inter-Korean border.

During their summit meetings in 2018, Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim agreed in principle to link their countries’ rail lines to help boost inter-Korean exchanges. South Korea has long dreamed of transporting its exports by train through North Korea to China, Russia and Europe. But that dream has been on hold as tensions over the North’s nuclear weapons program has stymied the railroad agreement.

In one of his last diplomatic initiatives before leaving office,Mr. Moon has also urged the United States and North Korea to join his government in declaring an end to the Korean War, which halted in a truce in 1953. He proposed the declaration as an incentive for North Korea to reduce tension and to denuclearize. But the North has called his proposal premature as long as Washington maintained its “hostile policy.”

North Korea has not tested any long-range missiles of the kind that could directly threaten the continental United States since it conducted three intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2017. But since Mr. Kim’s diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump collapsed in 2019, the country has resumed testing mostly short-range missiles, including ones launched from trains rolled out of tunnels​.

These tests indicated that the North was developing more sophisticated ways of delivering nuclear and other warheads to South Korea, Japan and American bases, according to defense analysts. ​ Some of the missiles it has tested since 2019 used solid fuel and made midair maneuvers​, making them harder to intercept, defense analysts said.

After the I.C.B.M. tests in 2017, Mr. Kim claimed that his country had the ability to launch a nuclear strike against the continental United States. Then he met Mr. Trump three times between 2018 and 2019 to push the United States to ease sanctions​ imposed under U.N. Security Council resolutions. ​

The Kim-Trump diplomacy collapsed without an agreement on rolling back the North’s nuclear weapons program or lifting international sanctions imposed on the country. ​Since then, North Korea has said it would not engage in dialogue again with Washington unless the United States changes its “hostile policy,” including joint military exercises with South Korean and international sanctions​.

During a five-day Workers’ Party meeting that ended on Dec. 31 in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Mr. Kim said his country should focus on alleviating the country’s chronic food shortages — a problem that he inherited from ​Kim Jong-il, ​his father​ and ​predecessor, who died 10 years ago​, ​and has yet to fix.

But he also said conditions demanded that “bolstering the state defense capability be further powerfully propelled without a moment’s delay.”

The North’s state media reports on the party meeting did not mention any diplomatic overtures toward the United States or South Korea, indicating that the country would continue to stick to its “self-reliant” policy.

North Korea ​remains extremely wary of any contact with the outside world during the coronavirus pandemic.

Motoko Rich contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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