The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has criticised South Korea’s president and threatened a “complete destruction” of bilateral relations after both countries tested ballistic missiles just hours apart.
The missile launches underscored a return to tensions between the rivals at a time when talks aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear programme have stalled.
Mr Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, criticised South Korean president Moon Jae-in for comments he made while observing his country’s missile tests, including its first of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
Mr Moon said South Korea’s growing missile capabilities would serve as a “sure deterrence” against North Korean provocations.
The tests came hours after the South Korean and Japanese militaries said North Korea had fired two ballistic missiles into the sea.
In a statement broadcast by state media, Ms Kim berated Mr Moon for describing North Korean weapons demonstrations as a provocation, and warned of a “complete destruction” of bilateral relations if he continued with what she described as slander of North Korea.
She said North Korea was developing its military capabilities for self-defence without targeting a specific country, and that South Korea was also increasing its military capabilities.
North Korea has often accused the South of hypocrisy for introducing modern weapons while calling for talks on easing tensions between the divided countries.
“If the president joins in the slander and detraction (against us), this will be followed by counter actions, and the North/South relations will be pushed toward a complete destruction,” she said.
“We do not want that.”
The South Korean and Japanese militaries said the two short-range ballistic missiles fired by North Korea flew 500 miles (800km) before landing in the sea inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone — a worrying development even though they did not reach Japanese territorial waters. The last time a North Korean missile landed inside that zone was in October 2019.
The launches came two days after North Korea said it had fired a newly developed cruise missile, its first known missile test in six months.
Hours after the latest North Korean launches, South Korea reported its first test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
As Mr Moon and other top officials looked on, the missile flew from a submarine and hit a designated target, the president’s office said.
Experts say North Korea is building up its weapons systems to apply pressure on the United States in hopes of winning relief from economic sanctions aimed at forcing the North to abandon its nuclear arsenal.
US-led talks on the issue have been stalled for more than two years.
“North Korea is trying to communicate a message that things will not go as Washington wishes, if it doesn’t accept the North’s demands,” Moon Seong Mook, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said.
The analyst said North Korea might think it has an opportunity to win concessions from US president Joe Biden’s administration while it is embroiled in a domestic debate following the chaotic pull-out from Afghanistan.
Observers say Mr Moon’s government, which has been actively pursuing reconciliation with North Korea, may have taken action to appear tougher in response to criticism that it is too soft on the North.
The rival nations are still technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War, which pitted the North and ally China against the South and US-led UN forces, ended in an armistice, rather than a peace treaty.
Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga said the launches “threaten the peace and safety of Japan and the region and are absolutely outrageous”.