SEOUL, South Korea — Air raid sirens sounded on a South Korean island and residents there evacuated to underground shelters after the North fired about a dozen missiles in its direction Wednesday, at least one of them landing near the rivals’ tense sea border. South Korea quickly responded by performing its own missile tests.
The launches came hours after North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons to get the U.S. and South Korea to “pay the most horrible price in history” as it has intensified its fiery rhetoric targeting the ongoing South Korean-U.S. military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal.
South Korea’s military said North Korea launched more than 10 missiles of various kinds off its eastern and western coasts.
One of the missiles was flying toward South Korea’s Ulleung island before it eventually landed at a site 104 miles northwest of the island. South Korea’s military subsequently issued an air raid alert on the island, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korean media published photos showing island residents moving to underground shelters.
That missile’s landing site is also 16 miles away from the rivals’ sea border. It’s in international waters, but still far south of the extension of the nations’ border. South Korea’s military said it was the first time a North Korean missile had landed so close to the sea border since the countries’ division in 1948.
“This is very unprecedented and we will never tolerate it,” South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a separate statement.
Later Wednesday, South Korea said it conducted air-to-surface missile tests to show its determination to get tough on North Korean provocations. South Korea’s military said its fighter jets fired three precision-guided missiles to sites near the rivals’ eastern sea border.
“North Korea firing missiles in a way that sets off air raid sirens appears intended to threaten South Koreans to pressure their government to change policy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “North Korea’s expanding military capabilities and tests are worrisome, but offering concessions about alliance cooperation or nuclear recognition would make matters worse.”
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier identified three of the North Korean weapons launched as “short-range ballistic missiles” fired from the North’s eastern coastal town of Wonsan, including the one that hit near the sea border.
North Korean short-range weapons are designed to strike key facilities in South Korea, including U.S. military bases there.
In an emergency meeting with top security officials, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered officials to take swift unspecified steps get North Korea to face consequences for its provocation. He said he would consider the North Korean missile’s landing near the border “a virtual violation of (our) territorial waters.”
The North’s barrage of missile tests came as South Korea is in an official mourning period in the wake of the Halloween party crush that killed more than 150 people in Seoul in the country’s largest disaster in years.
During the emergency South Korean meeting, “participants lamented the provocations committed during our national mourning period and pointed out that this clearly showed the nature of the North Korean government,” according to South Korea’s presidential office.
Animosities on the Korean Peninsula have been running high in recent months, with North Korea testing a string of nuclear-capable missiles and adopting a law authorizing the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations. Some experts still doubt North Korea could use nuclear weapons first in the face of U.S. and South Korean forces.
North Korea has argued its recent weapons tests were meant to issue a warning to Washington and Seoul over their series of joint military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal, including this week’s exercises involving about 240 warplanes.
In a statement released early Wednesday, Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party who is considered a close confidant of leader Kim Jong Un, called the so-called Vigilant Storm air force drills “aggressive and provocative.”
He also slammed South Korean military leaders over what he called “rubbish” comments that threatened to destroy North Korea if it uses nuclear weapons.
“If the U.S. and South Korea attempt to use armed forces against (North Korea) without any fear, the special means of the (North’s) armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay,” Pak said, in an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons.
“The U.S. and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,” he said.
U.S. and South Korean officials have steadfastly said their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no intention of attacking North Korea.