North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles into its eastern waters on Saturday in its latest weapons display, a day after rival South Korea launched a solid-fuel rocket as part of its efforts to build a space surveillance capability to better monitor the north.
Tensions between the rival Koreas rose earlier this week when South Korea accused North Korea of flying five drones across the rivals’ tense border for the first time in five years and responded by sending drones of its own towards the North
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it detected the three launches on Saturday morning from an inland area south of Pyongyang, the North’s capital. It said the three missiles traveled about 350 kilometers (220 miles) before landing in the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan. The estimated range suggests that the missiles tested are aimed at South Korea.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff called the launches “a serious provocation” that undermines international peace. He said South Korea closely monitors North Korea’s movements in coordination with the United States and remains ready to “overwhelmingly” deter any North Korean provocations.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said the launches highlight the “destabilizing impact” of North Korea’s illegal weapons programs and that US commitments to the defense of South Korea and the Japan “remain uncompromising”. Earlier on Saturday, Japan’s Defense Ministry also reported suspected ballistic missile launches by North Korea.
It was North Korea’s first missile launch in eight days and came five days after South Korea said it detected North Korean drones, all believed to be small surveillance drones, south of the border.
On Monday, South Korea’s military scrambled warplanes and helicopters, but were unable to shoot down any of the North Korean drones before they returned home or disappeared from South Korea’s radar. One of North Korea’s drones traveled as far north as Seoul. That sparked security concerns among many people in the south, prompting the military to issue a rare public apology on Tuesday.
South Korea still flew three of its surveillance drones across the border on Monday in an unusual move against a North Korean provocation. South Korea held large-scale military drills on Thursday to simulate shooting down drones.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has called for strengthening his country’s air defense network and vowed to deal sternly with North Korea’s provocations.
Since taking office in May, the Yoon government has expanded regular military exercises with the US in the face of growing nuclear threats from North Korea. North Korea has described the drills between its rivals as a rehearsal for invasion and has argued that its recent missile tests were a response to them. But some experts say North Korea is using the South Korean-US training as a pretext to modernize its arsenal and increase its leverage in future dealings with the US.
Before Saturday’s launches, North Korea had already tested more than 70 missiles this year. Many of them were nuclear weapons designed to attack the North American continent and its allies South Korea and Japan.
On Friday, South Korea launched a solid-fuel rocket, a type of space launch vehicle it plans to use to put its first spy satellite into orbit in the coming years.
In March, South Korea conducted its first successful launch of a solid-fuel rocket, and defense officials said Friday’s launch was a follow-up test to the earlier launch. Friday’s unannounced launch sparked a brief public scare over a UFO sighting or North Korean missile launch into South Korea.
South Korea currently has no military reconnaissance satellites of its own and relies on US spy satellites to monitor strategic installations in North Korea.
North Korea is also pushing to acquire its first military surveillance satellite. Earlier this month, North Korea said it used two old missiles as space launch vehicles to test a camera and other systems needed for a spy satellite and later released satellite photos of low resolution showing cities in South Korea.
Some South Korean experts said North Korea’s satellite images were too crude for military reconnaissance purposes and are likely a disguised test of North Korea’s missile technology. Infuriated by this assessment, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, hurled crude insults at unidentified South Korean experts. He also dismissed some outside doubts about North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile technology and threatened to conduct a full-range, standard-range ICBM test.
This week, North Korea is at a major meeting of the ruling party in Pyongyang to review past policies and new political goals for 2023. It is highly unusual for North Korea to test a missile when holding a key meeting.
In an indication that the Workers’ Party plenum was winding down, state media in the North reported on Saturday that its powerful Politburo decided to complete the plenary resolution draft.
Some observers said North Korea was likely to release details of the meeting on Sunday, which would include Kim Jong Un’s vows to expand his nuclear arsenal and introduce sophisticated weapons in the name of dealing with what he calls American hostility.
Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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