North Korea fires missile as US, South Korea prepare for drills

| Updated: February 19, 2023 13:00:00

A TV screen showing a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news programme at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on Saturday –AP photo A TV screen showing a file image of North Korea's missile launch during a news programme at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea on Saturday –AP photo

South Korea’s military said North Korea on Saturday fired one suspected long-range missile from its capital toward the sea, a day after it threatened to take strong measures against South Korea and the US over their joint military exercises.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said the ballistic missile was fired at around 5:22 p.m. from an area in Sunan, the site of Pyongyang’s international airport, where the North has conducted most of its intercontinental ballistic missile tests in recent years. The South Korean military didn’t immediately say where the weapon landed, according to Associated Press.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Friday threatened with “unprecedently” strong action against its rivals, after South Korea announced a series of planned military exercises with the United States aimed at sharpening their response to the North’s growing threats.

Toshiro Ino, Japan’s vice minister for defence, said the missile was expected have landed in waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Oshima island. Oshima lies off the western coast of the northernmost main island of Hokkaido.

The office of South Korean President Yun Suk Yeol said his national security director, Kim Sung-han, was presiding over an emergency security meeting to discuss the launch. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Tokyo was closely communicating with Washington and Seoul over the launch, which he described as “an act of violence that escalates provocation toward the international order.”

The launch was North Korea’s first since Jan. 1, when it test-fired a short-range weapon. It followed a massive military parade in Pyongyang last week, where troops rolled out more than a dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles as leader Kim Jong Un watched in delight from a balcony.

The unprecedented number of missiles underscored a continuation of expansion of his country’s military capabilities despite limited resources while negotiations with Washington remain stalemated.

Those missiles included a new system experts say is possibly linked to the North’s stated desire to acquire a solid-fuel ICBM. North Korea’s existing ICBMs, including Hwasong-17s, use liquid propellants that require pre-launch injections and cannot remain fuelled for prolonged periods. A solid-fuel alternative would take less time to prepare and is easier to move around on vehicles, providing less opportunity to be spotted.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether Saturday’s launch involved a solid-fuel system.

“North Korean missile firings are often tests of technologies under development, and it will be notable if Pyongyang claims progress with a long-range solid-fuel missile,” said Leif-Aeric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The Kim regime may also tout this launch as a response to US defence cooperation with South Korea and sanctions diplomacy at the United Nations.”

North Korea is coming off a record year in weapons demonstrations with more than 70 ballistic missiles fired, including ICBMs with potential range to reach the US mainland. The North also conducted a slew of launches it described as simulated nuclear attacks against South Korean and US targets in response to the allies’ resumption of large-scale joint military exercise that had been downsized for years.

North Korea’s missile tests have been punctuated by threats of preemptive nuclear attacks against South Korea or the United States over what it perceives as a broad range of scenarios that put its leadership under threat.

Kim doubled down on his nuclear push entering 2023, calling for an “exponential increase” in the country’s nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting “enemy” South Korea and the development of more advanced ICBMs.

The North Korean statement on Friday accused Washington and Seoul of planning more than 20 rounds of military drills this year, including large-scale field exercises, and described its rivals as “the arch-criminals deliberately disrupting regional peace and stability.”

The statement came hours after South Korea’s Defence Ministry officials told lawmakers that Seoul and Washington will hold an annual computer-simulated combined training in mid-March. The 11-day training would reflect North Korea’s nuclear threats, as well as unspecified lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war, according to Heo Tae-keun, South Korea’s deputy minister of national defence policy.

Heo said the two countries will also conduct joint field exercises in mid-March that would be bigger than those held in the past few years.

South Korea and the US will also hold a one-day tabletop exercise next week at the Pentagon to sharpen a response to a potential use of nuclear weapons by North Korea.

The exercise, scheduled for Wednesday, would set up possible scenarios where North Korea uses nuclear weapons, explore how to cope with them militarily and formulate crisis management plans, South Korea’s Defence Ministry said.

North Korea has traditionally described US-South Korea military exercises as rehearsals for a potential invasion, while the allies insist that their drills are defencive in nature.

The United States and South Korea had downsized or cancelled some of their major drills in recent years, first to support the former Trump administration’s diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang and then because of COVID-19. But North Korea’s growing nuclear threats have raised the urgency for South Korea and Japan to strengthen their defence postures in line with their alliances with the United States.

South Korea has been seeking reassurances that United States will swiftly and decisively use its nuclear capabilities to protect its ally in face of a North Korean nuclear attack. In addition to expanding and evolving military exercises with South Korea, the United States has also expressed commitment to increase its deployment of strategic military assets like fighter jets and aircraft carriers to the Korean Peninsula in a show of strength.

In December, Japan made a major break from its strictly self-defence-only post-World War II principle, adopting a new national security strategy that includes preemptive strikes and cruise missiles to counter growing threats from North Korea, China and Russia.

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