North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a live-fire artillery exercise simulating an attack on a South Korean airfield and asked his troops to be ready to respond to enemies’ “frantic war preparation moves,” apparently referring to the largest US military exercises with the South in years.
The North Korean state media report came a day after South Korea’s military found the North fired at least one short-range ballistic missile seaward from a site near the western coastal city of Nampo. The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff were considering whether multiple missiles might have been fired from the area at the same time.
South Korea and the United States are preparing this month for their largest combined military exercise in years to counter the growing threat from Kim’s nuclear arsenal, which he has aggressively expanded despite North’s growing economic isolation and the difficulties associated with the pandemic.
NORTH KOREA FIRE SHORT-RANGE BALLISTIC MISSILE, SOUTH KOREA SAYS
The official Pyongyang Central Korean News Agency said Kim had urged his troops to be ready to “respond overwhelmingly and contain” the military action of the enemies of the North, who it said were proceeding with “all sorts of more frantic moves of preparation for war”.
He said front-line units should hone their skills to carry out their two main “strategic missions, namely, the first to deter war and the second to seize the initiative in warfare.”
The report did not specify what types of weapons were involved in Thursday’s drill or how many rockets were fired. Some of the North’s latest short-range weapons against South Korea include large multiple rocket launchers that experts say blur the lines between artillery and ballistic missile systems.
North Korea describes some of its most advanced short-range systems as tactical weapons, implying plans to arm them with low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons.
Experts say the North’s wording is communicating a threat to proactive use of those weapons during conventional warfare to blunt the stronger conventional forces of South Korea and the United States, which maintain some 28,000 troops in South Korea to help deter potential aggression from North Korea.
Kim’s comments were in line with an escalating nuclear doctrine the North put into law last year, which authorizes preemptive nuclear strikes in situations where it might perceive its leadership as threatened, including conventional confrontations.
Photos released by North Korea’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun showed at least six rockets fired from launch vehicles lined up in an unspecified coastal forest area.
Kim watched the shooting from an observation post along with military officials and his daughter, who is believed to be named Kim Ju Ae and about 10 years old.
She has appeared at several events related to her military since she was first unveiled at an ICBM test launch in November, and analysts believe the events and high profile descriptions of her in state media are meant to show the world that has no intention of voluntarily surrendering its nuclear weapons, which it apparently sees as the strongest guarantee of its survival and of the extent of its family’s dynastic rule.
After a record year in missile tests, North Korea conducted more weapons demonstrations in 2023. Experts say North Korea with its heightened testing and threat activity is trying to claim a dual capability to conduct nuclear strikes against South Korea and the US mainland.
Kim’s campaign is intended to force the United States to accept the North as a nuclear power and negotiate badly needed economic concessions from a position of strength, analysts say. Diplomacy between the US and North Korea has stalled since 2019.
The United States also recently sent advanced warplanes, including B-1B and B-52 long-range bombers, to train with South Korean aircraft in a show of force, sparking protests from North Korea, which describes the joint exercises of allies as evidence of invasion.
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The South Korean and US militaries will conduct computer-simulated command post training March 13-23 and resume their largest spring field exercises, which last took place in 2018. Regular allied exercises have been canceled or scaled back to bolster diplomacy or due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but renewed them after the collapse of diplomacy and North Korea’s escalation of threats and weapons tests.
Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s powerful sister and a top foreign policy official in Pyongyang, warned on Tuesday that her country was ready, if necessary, to take “swift and sweeping action” in the face of the extensive exercises of allies.
In previous statements, he has threatened to turn the Pacific into North Korea’s firing range and has repeatedly implied that the North could test fire an ICBM towards those waters on a ballistic trajectory, which would be seen as one of its more provocative weapon demonstrations.
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All of North Korea’s ICBM tests since 2017 have been conducted at a steep angle to avoid neighbors’ territories.