Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea kept up its intensive launching of missiles, firing three more on Thursday after setting a record the previous day with 23 launches.
The projectiles, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile, have triggered alerts, prompting some residents to seek shelter in two countries — South Korea and Japan — on both days.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called the launches “intolerable.” Japan’s 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 Oct. 4.
“North Korea staged a very threatening provocation at a magnitude we’ve never seen before,” says Kim Jeong-dae, a former defense official and visiting professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“First, they launched missiles from all around the country — east, west, south, north,” he explains. “This seems intended to negate our strategy of striking the source of attack.” He adds that the quantity of projectiles suggests that North Korea has produced ample 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 in an armistice in 1953. One flew toward Ulleung Island off South Korea’s east coast, triggering air raid sirens, before dropping in the sea.
While missiles did not land in South Korea’s territorial waters, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol called the launch “tantamount to violating South Korea’s territory.” South Korea responded by firing two air-to-ground missiles across the maritime border into international waters.
Launching them so close to South Korean territory, Kim Jeong-dae says, could be seen as a kind of “area denial strategy that blocks the combined forces [of the U.S. and South Korea] from approaching North Korea.”
“And the region where the North Korean missile fell,” he adds, “has many fishing boats catching squid,” suggesting that it could put South Koreans’ livelihoods at risk, and “pose existential threat to South Korea, if need be.”
North Korea has accused the U.S. of preparing to attack it, possibly with nuclear weapons, in order to justify its missile launches.
Pyongyang points to this week’s U.S.-South Korean joint air force drills, involving some 240 military aircraft flying a record of about 1,600 sorties.
Last week, it pointed to 12 days of “National Defense” field exercises. While the allies insist the drills are defensive in nature, they are aimed at defeating threats from North Korea.
Pyongyang has fumed at the U.S. deployment of “strategic assets” such as aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines to the area around the Korean peninsula to deter and respond to North Korean provocations. Pyongyang has called the deployments a threat to regional stability.
And it especially bristles at U.S. and South Korean military exercises that simulate “decapitation” strikes against North Korea’s leadership.
Of course, even without the pretext of U.S. and South Korean military exercises, North Korea is likely to be testing many nuclear weapons and missiles for years to come.
It’s a part of a five-year plan to beef up its nuclear and missile arsenals, in hopes of forcing the U.S. to make concessions, such as sanctions relief and recognition of Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state. Washington insists these will not happen.
As dramatic as this week’s military muscle flexing may seem, North Korea has reportedly completed preparations to top it off with the test-detonation of an atomic bomb, if it so chooses. While this has been predicted for months, Pyongyang may think that timing it to coincide with U.S. midterm elections would yield extra political impact.
NPR’s Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.