South Korean and US officials have warned for months that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is preparing to conduct another nuclear test
Seoul (AFP) – North Korea fired two ballistic missiles early Saturday, the South Korean military said, in the nuclear-armed country’s fourth launch this week, as Seoul, Tokyo and Washington step up joint military exercises to counter Pyongyang.
South Korea, Japan and the United States held anti-submarine exercises on Friday – the first in five years – just days after the navies of Washington and Seoul conducted large-scale exercises in the waters off the peninsula.
US Vice President Kamala Harris was in Seoul on Thursday and toured the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula, a trip meant to underscore her country’s “resolute” commitment to defending South Korea against North Korea.
With talks stalled for a long time, Pyongyang has doubled down on its banned weapons programs, conducted a series of record-breaking tests this year and revised its laws to declare itself an “irreversible” nuclear power.
The South Korean military said it “discovered two short-range missiles between 0645 and 0703 that were launched from the Sunan area of ​​Pyongyang towards the East Sea,” referring to the water body also known as the Sea of ​​Japan.
Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the missiles “flyed 350 kilometers (217 miles) at an altitude of 30 kilometers at a speed of Mach 6, and described the launches as a “serious provocation.”
Tokyo also confirmed the launch, saying the missiles landed outside Japan’s exclusive economic zones.
Toshiro Ino, Japan’s deputy defense minister, said the missiles “appear to have been launched in irregular trajectories.”
Experts say the irregular trajectories indicate the missiles are capable of maneuvering in flight, making them more difficult to track and intercept.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that the latest launch “highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illegal weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs,” using the official acronym for North Korea.
– Harris’s trip –
North Korea celebrated Harris’ trip to Seoul with a flurry of missile launches — it fired short-range ballistic missiles on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, the latest test just hours after the vice president exited South Korea.
About 28,500 US troops are deployed to South Korea to help protect it from the North.
Under South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, the two countries have beefed up joint exercises, which they insist are purely defensive.
Prior to Harris’ arrival in Seoul, Washington sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to South Korea to conduct a large-scale joint naval exercise in a show of force against Pyongyang.
Such exercises infuriate North Korea, which sees them as rehearsals for an invasion.
“North Korea’s short-range ballistic tests are less significant than the nuclear test but still violate UN Security Council resolutions,” said Leif Eric Easley, a professor at the University of Ewa in Seoul, adding that the timing was “provocative.”
He said North Korea “is rapidly modernizing weapons and benefiting from a world divided by the rivalry between the United States and China and Russia’s annexation of more Ukrainian territory.”
“Pyongyang’s actions demonstrate once again the need for Washington and Seoul to strengthen military deterrence, tighten economic sanctions and increase policy coordination with Tokyo,” he added.
– Nuclear test then? –
South Korean and US officials have warned for months that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is preparing to conduct another nuclear test.
On Wednesday, South Korea’s spy agency said North Korea’s next nuclear test could happen in the interval between China’s upcoming October 16 caucus and the November 7 US midterm elections.
That assessment is in line with that given Friday by a US official, who said such testing would likely take place one to two weeks after the conference.
Admiral Sam Paparo, the US fleet’s chief of staff for the region, said in Honolulu that any such test would be a “grave and serious matter,” and would result in a US response that would include “multiple instruments of national power.”
North Korea, which is under multiple UN sanctions over its weapons programs, typically seeks to maximize the geopolitical impact of its experiments with precise timing.
The isolated country has tested its nuclear weapons six times since 2006, most recently in 2017.
President Yun on Saturday warned of dire consequences if Pyongyang used nuclear weapons against its southern neighbor.
“If North Korea tries to use nuclear weapons, it will face a resolute and overwhelming response from our military and our Korea-US alliance,” he said in a speech marking Armed Forces Day.