North Korea carried out another banned missile test, just hours after a visit by US Vice-President Kamala Harris, South Korea’s military says.

Two short-range ballistic missiles were fired into the sea off the North’s east coast, it said, in the third such breach of UN sanctions this week.

It follows a visit by Ms Harris to the demilitarised zone dividing the Koreas.

This has been a record year for missile tests in North Korea and the latest launches are timed to send a message.

They come as the US and South Korea held joint naval drills this week around the Korean peninsula.

Earlier on Thursday, Ms Harris met South Korea’s leader Yoon Suk-yeol shortly after her arrival in the capital Seoul.

Both condemned Pyongyang’s actions.

In a White House statement, the two leaders criticised Pyongyang’s “provocative nuclear rhetoric and ballistic missile launches”, and “reaffirmed [their] alignment… and goal of the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”.

The vice-president also “underscored that the United States is committed to defending [South Korea]… and welcomed [their] close co-operation”.

With denuclearisation talks between the North and the US long stalled, these launches are part of a wider pattern of escalation, with Pyongyang continuing to build and refine its weapons, while Washington strengthens its defences.

This week’s missiles – the first fired on Sunday before the naval drills began, followed by two on the eve of Ms Harris’s visit and the last two hours after she left – are the first since early June, but North Korea has test-launched more than 30 weapons so far in 2022, more than in any other single year.

Experts believe the launches are in retaliation to the joint naval drills as Washington and Seoul bolster their defence of South Korea – the four-day joint drills are the first involving a US aircraft carrier to be held since 2017.

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In a speech to the General Assembly earlier this week, Pyongyang’s ambassador to the UN Song Kim criticised the US and South Korea for their military exercises, saying they were bringing the peninsula to “the brink of war”. He said the United States’ “hostile policy” towards North Korea was the reason the world was now “heading into a much more dangerous phase”.

South Korea and the US have long defended their joint exercises, which they say are aimed at stabilising the region.

The secretive Communist state’s assertiveness over its possession of nuclear weapons is growing – and that worries the US and South Korea.

Earlier this month, North Korea passed a law declaring itself to be a nuclear weapons state. Leader Kim Jong-un vowed his country would never give up their weapons or engage in nuclear disarmament talks.

The law also allows the North to fire first, in a wide range of scenarios. Until recently it had always claimed its weapons were a deterrent, aimed at preventing a war.

For months intelligence from the US and South Korea has suggested the North is ready to test a nuclear weapon but is waiting for the opportune political moment.

This would be its seventh nuclear test and its first for five years. On Wednesday South Korea’s spy agency told politicians that the nuclear test could happen between mid-October and early November, likely seizing on a window between the Chinese Communist Party congress and before the US mid-term elections.

President Yoon, who took office in May, has focused on strengthening South Korea’s alliance with the United States to tackle the threat posed by North Korea.

By Tuhin

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