By: Eunice Kim
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA — North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles Monday morning in what it quickly made clear was retaliation for the United States’ joint aerial drills with South Korea involving a pair of B-1B strategic bombers and F-35 stealth fighters less than a day before.
A markedly speedy statement on the official Korean Central News Agency said a multiple rocket launching drill from the western front had aimed two 600-millimeter rockets at targets 395 kilometers and 337 kilometers to the east.
The statement boasted that just four rounds of the rockets, which it characterized as able to deliver a tactical nuclear weapon, could devastate an airfield.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected two short-range ballistic missiles fired between 7 a.m. and 7:11 a.m. from North Korea’s Sukchon area, north of the capital Pyongyang, into waters east of the Korean Peninsula.
The flight distance of the weapons — as far as 390 kilometers as cited by Seoul’s military — if angled differently could theoretically place multiple air bases in South Korea within range, including U.S. Air Force bases in Osan and Gunsan.
North Korea had shown off the 600 millimeter rockets in a New Year’s broadcast last month, as it announced its goals of mass producing tactical nuclear weapons and developing a “quick nuclear counterstrike” intercontinental ballistic missile.
“We are well aware of the movement of U.S. forces’ strategic strike means recently getting brisk around the Korean Peninsula,” Kim Yo Jong said in another statement carried by state media Monday.
“The frequency of using the Pacific as our firing range [will] depend upon the U.S. forces’ action.”
Kim Yo Jong is the deputy department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, who often speaks on behalf of her brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, frequently in an insulting fashion.
‘Power for power’
Monday morning’s missile action comes less than two days after Pyongyang launched a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in what the nuclear-armed state described as a “surprise” exercise to test its “mobile and mighty counterattack” capability.
The United States responded swiftly, dispatching two B-1B strategic bombers and other assets from Guam to fly in formation Sunday with South Korea’s F-35s and Japan’s F-15 fighter jets.
“The training demonstrated the South Korea-U.S. combined defense capabilities and posture, featuring the alliance’s overwhelming forces, through the timely and immediate deployment of the U.S. extended deterrence assets to the Korean Peninsula,” Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
After the latest missile provocation on Monday, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he’d made a request for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting, while acknowledging the need to deepen with Washington and Seoul information gathering, warning surveillance and overall cooperation.
United Nations Secretary-General Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric also issued a strong condemnation of the year’s first ICBM test on Sunday local time, adding that the Secretary-General calls on North Korea to “immediately desist… and to resume dialogue leading to sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Monday announced a fresh round of sanctions on nine entities with suspected ties to North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, making good on a promise to strengthen the global sanctions regime, made alongside the U.S. and Japan’s top diplomats on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.
Analysts in Seoul are concerned confrontation will only heat up in the coming months, creating more opportunity for error.
“Both sides marked the other as ‘enemy,’ and warned of a strength-for-strength confrontation. Here we are seeing that play out,” Yang Moo-jin, professor and president of the University of North Korean Studies, told VOA.
“By all appearances, the South Korea-U.S. alliance is strengthening as North Korea’s nuclear capability is advancing. If the tension peaks on the peninsula, wouldn’t it be South and North Korea that has most to lose – not the U.S.?”
“The longer North Korea’s reckless military provocations continue, the case for arming South Korea with nuclear weapons will gain more traction,” warned lawmaker Chung Jin-suk, interim leader of the country’s ruling People Power Party.
While concrete nuclear deterrence measures must be secured, he said, if they are insufficient, the prospect of developing home-grown nuclear capabilities will be unavoidable.
The recent flurry of statements from North Korea indicate Pyongyang is positioned to respond to all forthcoming joint drills and other actions it views as hostile policy with the same intensity, said Park Won Gon, professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“[The first sister] Kim Yo Jong very clearly mentioned that, with the authority from Kim Jong Un, North Korea will respond to every case of South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise… and with far more powerful means,” he said.
Indeed, in her latest statement on Monday, Kim warned that more “corresponding counteraction” would come in the presence of direct or indirect threats.
“We affirm once again that there is no change in our will to make the worst maniacs escalating the tensions pay the price for their actions,” she said. (KB/VOA)