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North Korea launches at least 3 ballistic missiles toward sea, South Korea says

A view of what state news agency KCNA reports is the test firing of a hypersonic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 5, 2022, in this photo released January 6, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (Reuters)

North Korea launched at least three ballistic missiles toward the sea on Wednesday morning local time, according to South Korea’s military.

All three missiles were fired toward waters off North Korea’s eastern coast one after another between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the office of Japan's Prime Minister also said, "The Ministry of Defense has reported that a possible ballistic missile has been launched from North Korea."

The latest test marks the 16th time that North Korea has fired its missiles this year, including what the US says was a failed intercontinental ballistic missile test on May 4 that exploded shortly after launch.

The new launches came after US President Joe Biden’s visit last weekend to South Korea where he and President Yoon Suk Yeol agreed to consider expanding military drills to deter the North’s nuclear threats.

During the visit, Biden indicated that he would be willing to take part in “sincere” and “serious” denuclearization talks with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un.

“It would depend on whether he was sincere and whether it was serious,” Biden told reporters in Seoul on Saturday when asked under what conditions he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader.

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, held three rare meetings with Kim during his tenure from 2016 to 2020 to accomplish North Korea's complete denuclearization. The attempt failed despite Pyongyang's positive efforts.

Since then, Pyongyang, which has been under crippling international sanctions, conducted several weapons tests, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range.

Last month, Kim said he would "strengthen and develop" his country’s nuclear forces at the "highest possible" speed.

US military and intelligence agencies assess the North might also be preparing for its first underground nuclear test in nearly five years. The country has not conducted a nuclear test since 2017.

The latest test also comes as the country says its first domestic COVID-19 outbreak is weakening and some observers had already predicted that it would soon resume its missile tests.

On Friday, Pyongyang claimed “good results” in the fight against the outbreak even as the number of people with fever symptoms crossed two million.

A wave of COVID-19 infections, which hit the isolated, sanctions-battered country last week, has given rise to fears about a lack of medical resources and vaccines in North Korea to contain the outbreak.

But authorities in Pyongyang said on Friday they had seen good results in containing the outbreak.

The country’s 26 million people have not been vaccinated against the virus after North Korea rejected millions of doses offered under the WHO-led COVAX program.

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