SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – A nuclear-powered United States (US) aircraft carrier and its battle group began exercises with South Korean warships yesterday, hours after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles in an apparent protest of the allies’ expanding drills.
The seventh missile test this month underscored heightening tensions in the region as both the North’s weapons tests and the US-South Korea joint military exercises have intensified in a cycle of tit-for-tat.
The launches may have been timed for the arrival of the USS Nimitz and its strike group, including a guided missile cruiser and two destroyers, which engaged in air defence exercises and other drills with South Korean warships in waters near Jeju island.
South Korean navy spokesperson Jang Do Young said the drills were aimed at sharpening joint operational capabilities and demonstrating the US commitment to defend its ally with the full range of options, including nuclear, in face of the North’s “escalating nuclear and missile threats”. The Nimitz strike group was expected to arrive in the South Korean mainland port of Busan today.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the two North Korean missiles were fired from a western inland area south of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang from around 7.47am to 8am and travelled around 370 kilometres (km) before landing at sea. Japan’s military said the missiles flew on an irregular trajectory and reached a maximum altitude of 50km before landing outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Japan has previously used the term to describe a North Korean solid-fuel missile apparently modelled after Russia’s Iskander mobile ballistic system, which is designed to be manoeuvrable in low-altitude flight to better evade South Korean missile defences. North Korea also has another short-range system with similar characteristics that resembles the US MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said North Korea may dial up its testing activity further with more missile launches or even conducting its first nuclear test since September 2017.
The South Korean and Japanese militaries denounced the latest launches as serious provocations threatening regional peace and violating United Nations Security Council resolutions and said they were working with the US to analyse the missiles further. The US Indo Pacific Command said the launches did not pose an immediate threat to the US or its allies, but still highlighted the “destabilising impact” of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
The US and South Korea completed their biggest springtime exercises in years last week, which had included both computer simulations and life-fire field exercises. But the allies have continued their field training in a show of force against North Korea’s expanding nuclear arsenal and belligerent threats of nuclear conflict.