Nerves are rising yet again in East Asia after North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Monday, as a US aircraft carrier staged combined naval exercises with South Korea in what is seen as a warning to Pyongyang.
The missiles flew about 370 km after being launched from North Hwanghae province at 7:47 a.m. (6:47 a.m. Monday), in an apparent protest against the allies’ expanding drills, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, with Seoul’s military condemning the North’s launches as a grave provocation.
Seoul said it would continue building the capability to “overwhelmingly respond to any provocations.”
Only hours after two short-range ballistic missiles blasted off, fighter jets roared off the USS Nimitz as the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier and its battle group began exercises with South Korean warships.
The seventh missile test this month underscored what military analysts say are 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 defense exercises and other drills with South Korean warships in waters near Jeju island.
Jang Do Young, a South Korean navy spokesperson, 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.”
But the US Indo-Pacific Command said the latest launch did not pose an immediate threat, but highlighted the destabilizing impact of Pyongyang’s unlawful nuclear weapons programs.
The Japanese government also said it lodged a “strong protest” with North Korea, with Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno saying North Korea was likely to step up provocative activities, including a possible nuclear test.
US and South Korean officials have for almost a year warned Pyongyang could carry out what would be its first nuclear test since 2017.
The allies have been conducting a series of joint training in recent weeks including air and sea drills involving American B-1B bombers, and their first large-scale amphibious landing exercises in five years.
Analysts say North Korea’s latest missile launches are a demonstration of the country’s avowed ability to use nuclear force against South Korea and the US mainland.
North Korea claims its nuclear forces are capable of destroying its rivals, and often follows its provocative weapons tests with launch details.
But many foreign experts call the North’s claims propaganda and suggest the country is not yet capable of hitting the United States or its allies with a nuclear weapon.
Analysts say there’s no question North Korea has nuclear bombs, and that it has missiles that place the US mainland, South Korea and Japan within striking distance.
What’s not yet clear is whether the country has mastered the tricky engineering required to join the bombs and the missiles.
In the meanwhile, straining ripples are being swept south and southwest of East Asia, including the Philippines, and defense strategists are keeping a peeled eye on the situation.