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North Korean missile tests expose world’s struggle to curb military development

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made a rare visit to a weapons factory amid an unprecedented burst of missile tests that has exposed the international community’s struggle to rein in his military development plans.

The visit was Kim’s first publicly acknowledged appearance at a munitions factory in more than two years and was reported by state media a day after the country’s tested two ballistic missiles.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported the trip alongside details of a visit to the Ryonpho airfield near the country’s east coast. According to the South Korean military, two tactical guided missiles were launched from the area on Thursday.

The latest round of launches was the sixth in January alone, part of the most intense monthly period of weapons testing on record that has included two manoeuvrable missiles designed to evade defence systems and a series of cruise and short-range ballistic missiles.

The activity illustrates the progress North Korea has made in its pursuit of a weapons wishlist outlined by Kim during a party congress in January 2021, despite a longstanding US-led sanctions regime and an extreme lockdown imposed by the leader in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The US government this month imposed further sanctions on six North Koreans, a Russian national and a Russian company for involvement with or provision of support for the regime’s weapons programmes.

The sanctions drew an angry response from Pyongyang and Beijing, North Korea’s closest ally. China’s foreign ministry criticised the restrictions as “wilful”, arguing that they would “only worsen the confrontational mood”.

International outrage erupted this week when it was announced that North Korea would chair the UN Conference on Disarmament for four weeks in May and June. Pyongyang remains under UN sanctions due to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and remains the only state to have withdrawn from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The forum exists to support the “effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons”, according to the UN’s website.

Analysts said that the regime was adept at taking advantage of a divided and distracted international community.

“The preoccupation of key regional players with more pressing domestic or foreign policy challenges is pushing the North Korean nuclear issue down their list of priorities,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow with the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think-tank.

“This presents Pyongyang with a golden opportunity — the world may soon wake up to find North Korea in possession of even more dangerous nuclear weapons.”

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