SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea on Thursday launched a short-range ballistic missile toward its eastern waters, South Korea’s military said, hours after North Korea threatened to launch “tougher” military responses to the United States, bolstering its security commitment to its ally South Korea and Japan.
South Korea’s military detected the launch from the northern Wonsan area on the east coast at 10:48 a.m., South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It said South Korea has increased its surveillance of North Korea while maintaining military readiness and close coordination with the United States.
It was North Korea’s first ballistic missile launch in eight days and the latest in its flurry of tests in recent months. North Korea has previously said some of the tests were simulations of nuclear attacks on South Korean and American targets. Many experts say North Korea would eventually want to improve its nuclear power to wrest bigger concessions from its rivals.
Earlier Thursday, North Korean Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui warned that a recent US-South Korea-Japan summit agreement on the North would leave tensions on the Korean Peninsula “more unpredictable.”
Choe’s statement was North Korea’s first official response to US President Joe Biden’s trilateral summit with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of a regional gathering on Sunday in Cambodia. In their joint statement, the three leaders strongly condemned North Korea’s recent missile test and agreed to work together to strengthen deterrence, while Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to defend South Korea and Japan with a full range of capabilities, including its nuclear weapons.
“The more eager the United States is on the ‘enhanced offer of extended deterrence’ to its allies, and the more it intensifies provocative and bluffing military activities on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, the tougher (North Korea’s) military countermeasures will be, directly proportional to that,” Choe said. “It will pose a more serious, realistic and unavoidable threat to the United States and its vassal forces.”
Choe did not say what steps North Korea might take, but said that “the United States will be well aware that this is gambling, which it will certainly regret.”
South Korea’s Defense Ministry responded later Thursday that the purpose of the trilateral summit was to coordinate a joint response to slow and deter advancing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. Spokesman Moon Hong Sik told reporters that security cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo helped bolster an extended US deterrence against its allies.
North Korea has steadfastly maintained that its recent weapons testing activities are legitimate military countermeasures to US-South Korean military exercises, which it views as practice for launching attacks against the North. Washington and Seoul have said their drills are defensive in nature.
In recent months, South Korean and US troops have expanded their regular drills and resumed trilateral training with Japan in response to North Korea’s push to expand its nuclear and missile arsenals. These drills involved a US aircraft carrier and US B-1B supersonic bombers for the first time since 2017. For the past several years, annual military exercises between Seoul and Washington had been scaled back or canceled to support now-dormant diplomacy with North Korea and be wary of The COVID-19 pandemic.
In his Thursday statement, Choe said that “the United States and its supporters staged large-scale war of aggression exercises one after another, but they failed to contain North Korea’s overwhelming counter-action.”
There have been concerns that North Korea could carry out its first nuclear test in five years as the next big step towards strengthening its military capabilities against the US and its allies.
US and South Korean officials say North Korea has completed preparations to carry out a nuclear test at its remote test site in the northeast. Some experts say the test, if carried out, would be intended to develop nuclear warheads to be placed on short-range missiles capable of hitting key targets in South Korea, such as US military bases. They say North Korea will ultimately aim to use its strengthened arsenal as leverage to pressure the United States into making concessions in future negotiations and recognizing it as a nuclear state.
Thursday’s launch came a day after members of the Group of 20 leading economies concluded their summit in Indonesia. The summit was largely overshadowed by other topics such as Russia’s war on Ukraine. But Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol used their bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping to raise the issue of North Korea. The two held a trilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and discussed North Korea before coming to Indonesia for the G-20 summit.
In their respective bilateral talks with Xi, Biden noted that all members of the international community have an interest in encouraging North Korea to act responsibly, while Yoon urged China to play a more active, constructive role in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threats.
China, the North’s last major ally and biggest source of aid, is suspected of avoiding fully enforcing UN sanctions against North Korea and sending secret aid to North Korea to help its impoverished neighbor stay afloat and continue to serve as a bulwark against US influence on the Korean Peninsula.