Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea continued its intensive missile launches, firing three more on Thursday after setting a record the previous day with 23 launches.
The projectiles, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, triggered alerts, prompting some residents to seek refuge in two countries – South Korea and Japan – on both days.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launches “intolerable”. The Japanese government initially issued an alert for three prefectures, saying the ICBM had flown over the main island of Honshu, but later corrected the statement. North Korea last fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan on October 4.
“North Korea staged a very threatening provocation on a scale we’ve never seen before,” said Kim Jeong-dae, a former defense official and visiting professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“First they launched missiles from all over the country – east, west, south, north,” he explains. “It seems intended to negate our strategy of hitting the source of the attack.” He adds that the amount of projectiles suggests that North Korea has produced large stockpiles of weapons.
Wednesday’s launches marked the first time a North Korean missile had flown over the de facto maritime border separating the two Koreas since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953. One flew toward the Ulleung Island off the east coast of South Korea, setting off air raid sirens, before falling into the sea.
While the missiles did not land in South Korea’s territorial waters, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called the launch “a tantamount to violating South Korean territory”. South Korea responded by firing two air-to-surface missiles across the sea border into international waters.
Throwing them so close to South Korean territory, says Kim Jeong-dae, could be seen as a kind of “area denial strategy that blocks combined forces [of the U.S. and South Korea] to approach North Korea.”
“And the area where the North Korean missile fell,” he adds, “has many fishing boats catching squid,” suggesting that this could endanger the livelihoods of South Koreans and ” pose an existential threat to South Korea, if need be.”
North Korea has accused the United States of preparing to attack it, possibly with nuclear weapons, in order to justify its missile launches.
Pyongyang points to joint U.S.-South Korean air force drills this week, involving some 240 military aircraft carrying out a record 1,600 sorties.
Last week, he reported 12 days of “National Defense” field exercises. While allies insist the drills are defensive in nature, they are aimed at defeating threats from North Korea.
Pyongyang has fumed over the US deployment of “strategic assets” such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines in the area around the Korean peninsula to deter and respond to North Korean provocations. Pyongyang called the deployments a threat to regional stability.
And it bristles especially during US and South Korean military exercises that simulate “decapitation” strikes against North Korean leaders.
Of course, even without the pretense of US and South Korean military exercises, North Korea is likely to test many nuclear weapons and missiles in the years to come.
It’s part of a five-year plan to bolster its nuclear and missile arsenals, hoping to force the United States into making concessions, such as sanctions relief and recognition of Pyongyang as a state. armed with nuclear weapons. Washington insists that will not happen.
As dramatic as this week’s military exercise may seem, North Korea would have completed preparations to top it all off with the test detonation of an atomic bomb, if it chooses. Although this has been predicted for months, Pyongyang may think that timing it to coincide with the US midterm elections would have added political impact.
NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.