(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with military's analysis; RECASTS headline, lead)
By Song Sang-ho and Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, May 25 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired three ballistic missiles toward the East Sea on Wednesday, including an apparent intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), South Korea's military said, just a day after U.S. President Joe Biden wrapped up his Asia trip highlighting America's security commitment to Seoul and Tokyo.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it detected the launches from the Sunan area in Pyongyang at around 6 a.m., 6:37 a.m. and 6:42 a.m., respectively, which marked the North's 17th show of force this year.
The first of the three launches involved the suspected ICBM that flew some 360 kilometers at a top altitude of 540 km, the JCS said. Military authorities here are putting weight to the possibility of the missile being the North's newest Hwasong-17 ICBM.
The second missile, deemed to be a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), reached an altitude of around 20 km and "vanished" -- an apparent sign of a launch failure, the JCS said. The last missile, thought to be an SRBM, traveled some 760 km at an apogee of 60 km.
The launches followed speculation that the North could conduct an ICBM or nuclear test to bolster its military presence and tighten national unity amid COVID-19 outbreaks and economic woes.
"The North's ICBM launch is yet another case of its breach of a moratorium on ICBM launches that it itself pledged to the international community, and the launch is violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and a serious provocative act," the JCS said in a text message sent to reporters.
"Our military is monitoring related movements in preparation against the possibility of additional provocations by the North, and is maintaining a full readiness posture to ensure an overwhelming victory at all times," it added.
Soon after the launches, JCS Chairman Gen. Won In-choul and Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Korea, held virtual talks and reaffirmed their resolve to further solidify the allies' combined defense.
The previous day, the South Korean Air Force conducted the "Elephant Walk" training involving some 30 fully-armed F-15K fighter jets, as part of efforts to deter North Korean provocations.
In yet another quick response to the North's provocation, South Korea and the U.S. fired a Hyunmoo-II ballistic missile and one Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missile into the East Sea, respectively, to highlight their "rapid strike capabilities," the JCS said.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said Wednesday's missile launches highlight the "destabilizing impact of the DPRK's illicit weapons program." DPRK stands for the North's official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"We are aware of the multiple DPRK ballistic missile launches today and are assessing and consulting closely with our allies and partners," it said in a press release. "The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad."
On Tuesday, Biden concluded his first Asia trip since his inauguration early last year.
During a summit with President Yoon Suk-yeol on Saturday, Biden reaffirmed the U.S. "extended deterrence" commitment to South Korea using the "full range of U.S. defense capabilities, including nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities."
To deal with rising North Korean threats, the two leaders agreed to expand the allies' combined exercises and reactivate a key deterrence dialogue. Biden also reaffirmed the U.S.' commitment to deploying its strategic military assets "in a timely and coordinated manner as necessary."
Earlier this month, the North launched what was thought to be an ICBM and then an apparent submarine-launched ballistic missile -- in a move seen as an effort to diversify its nuclear delivery vehicles.
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