North and South Korea have test-fired missiles off each-other’s coasts for the first time, amid rapidly spiralling tensions between the bitter neighbouring nations.
Pyongyang launched at least 23 missiles off both its west and east coasts Wednesday including one which flew from the city of Wonsan, across the unofficial maritime border, and landed 37 miles off the South Korean coast – the first time a tested missile has done so. President Yoon Suk-yeol call it ‘effectively a territorial invasion.’
The North Korean weapon also triggered an air raid siren on the inhabited South Korean island of Ulleungdo after heading towards it, though it ultimately landed 100 miles short. The siren sent people scrambling for bunkers.
In response, Seoul ordered fighter jets to fire three air-to-surface missiles back which flew a similar distance across the ocean border before splashing down in the sea. It was also the first test of its kind by South Korea.
Kim Jong-un also ordered his artillery units to fire 100 shells into an ocean ‘buffer zone’ in the Sea of Japan, hours after one of his closest aides threatened the South and the US with nuclear weapons – saying they would ‘pay the most horrible price in history’ if the North were attacked.
North Korea is furious at Seoul and Washington for staging war games near its borders which it considers to be a rehearsal for an invasion. The allies deny the games are a provocation and say they are a response to weapons tests by Kim’s regime. The tit-for-tat actions have ramped up tensions around the Korean peninsula.
North Korea test-fired a total of 23 missiles Wednesday, one of which crossed the unofficial maritime border and hit the ocean 37 miles off the coast of South Korea, and 100 miles shy of an inhabited island. In response, South Korean jets fired three air-to-surface missiles back across the border, that came down near North Korean waters
A South Korean Air Force F-15K fighter fires an air-to-surface missile across the maritime border with North Korea in retaliation for a missile that was test-fired in the other direction early Wednesday
An American F-35B stealth fighter taxis for takeoff alongside South Korean KF-16 fighters – a modified version of the US F-16 – during combat drills taking place near North Korea’s borders today
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said: ‘We reject the notion that [the war games] serve as any sort of provocation.
‘We have made clear that we have no hostile intent towards [North Korea] and call on them to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.
American F-35 stealth fighters and South Korean KF-16 fighters take off during training drills today
‘[North Korea] continues to not respond. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with our allies and partners to limit the North’s ability to advance its unlawful weapons programs and threaten regional stability.’
On Monday the US and South Korea began Vigilant Storm, one of their largest combined military air drills, with hundreds of warplanes from both sides staging mock attacks 24 hours a day.
North Korea has test-fired a record number of missiles this year, and has said that a recent flurry of launches were in response to the allied drills.
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 authorising the pre-emptive use of its nuclear weapons in a broad range of situations.
Experts still doubt North Korea could use nuclear weapons first in the face of more superior US 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.
Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of the 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.’
Kim Jong-un is thought to be furious at joint South Korean-US war games taking place near his borders which he views as a rehearsal for an invasion. Seoul and Washington deny this, saying the games are in response to North Korea’s tests
A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea’s missile launch during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul
Mr Pak also accused the Pentagon of formulating a North Korean regime collapse as a major policy objective in an apparent reference to the Pentagon’s recently released National Defence Strategy report. The report stated any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners ‘will result in the end of that regime’.
He slammed South Korean military leaders over what he called ‘rubbish’ comments that threatened to destroy North Korea if it uses nuclear weapons. South Korea’s military has warned North Korea that using its nuclear weapons would put it on a ‘path of self-destruction’.
‘If the US 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,’ Mr Pak said, in an apparent reference to his country’s nuclear weapons.
‘The US and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,’ he said.
US and South Korean officials have steadfastly said their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no intentions of attacking North Korea.
Mr Pak’s statement is the North’s second warning to the United States and South Korea this week. On Monday, the North’s Foreign Ministry warned of ‘more powerful follow-up measures’ in response to its rivals’ air force drills.
South Korean officials have said North Korea could up the ante in coming weeks by detonating its first nuclear test device since September 2017, which could possibly take the country a step closer to its goals of building a full-fledged nuclear arsenal capable of threatening regional US allies and the American mainland.
Some experts say North Korea would eventually want to use its expanded nuclear arsenal as a leverage in future negotiations with the United States to win sanctions relief and other concessions.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at a meeting of the National Security Council over North Korea’s missile launch, at the presidential office in Seoul