The military of North Korea said on Monday that its recent blitz of missile tests were drills for "mercilessly" hitting important South Korean and American targets such air bases and operational command systems with a variety of missiles, potentially including nuclear-capable weapons.
The North's announcement highlighted its leader Kim Jong Un's resolve to stand his ground in the face of his adversaries' efforts to increase their military drills. However, according to some experts, Kim also used their drills as an excuse to update his nuclear weapons and gain more clout in upcoming negotiations with Washington and Seoul.
In protest of extensive U.S.-South Korean air force drills that the North perceives as an invasion rehearsal, North Korea launched dozens of missiles and aero planes toward the sea last week, causing evacuation alerts in some South Korean and Japanese locations.
Officials from the United States and South Korea replied that they will improve their joint training exercises and warned the North that the use of nuclear weapons would lead to the overthrow of Kim's leadership.
According to the General Staff of North Korea's military, "the recent equivalent military operations by the KPA are a clear answer of (North Korea) that the more comprehensively and cruelly the KPA would counter them the more persistently the enemies' provocative military acts continue.
It claimed that the weapons tests involved ground-to-air missiles that were intended to "annihilate" enemy aircraft at various altitudes and distances, ballistic missiles with dispersion warheads and underground infiltration warheads, and strategic cruise missiles that were launched in international waters about 80 kilometers (50 miles) off the coast of Ulsan, South Korea.
The military of the North claimed to have also conducted a significant test of a ballistic missile with a unique operational warhead with the goal of "paralyzing the operation command system of the enemy." It's possible that this refers to a mock electromagnetic pulse attack, but other experts question whether North Korea has acquired the necessary capabilities to launch such an attack.
Although its main newspaper published a picture of an ICBM-like missile as one of the weapons mobilized during last week's testing activities, the North's military statement made no explicit mention of a reportedly launched intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday that was reportedly intended to hit the U.S. mainland.
Numerous other North Korean missiles were fired last week, according to some experts, and many of them were short-range nuclear-capable weapons that put important South Korean military targets, such as American facilities there, in striking distance.
Later on Monday, the military of South Korea challenged several of the North's claims regarding its missile testing. The North's cruise missile launches were not detected by South Korea, according to spokesperson Kim Jun-rak, and it is noteworthy that North Korea made no mention of what Seoul believed to be an unusual ICBM flight.
The annual fall air force exercises known as "Vigilant Storm" between the United States and South Korea this year were the biggest ever. 240 warplanes, including both nations' powerful F-35 fighter jets, participated in the drills. The exercises were originally scheduled to last five days, finishing on Friday, but the allies decided to extend the training by one more day in response to the North's missile testing.
The United States flew two B-1B supersonic bombers over South Korea on Saturday, the last day of the air force drills, as a show of force against North Korea. This was the aircraft's first such flyover since December 2017.
The participation of the B-1Bs in the joint exercises, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, showed that the allies were prepared to firmly respond to North Korean provocations and that the United States was committed to defending its ally with the full range of its military resources, including nuclear.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup issued a joint statement after their annual meeting on Thursday in Washington strongly condemning the North's recent launches and reiterating Austin's warning that any nuclear attacks against the United States or its allies and partners "is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime."
In order to increase readiness against North Korean nuclear and missile threats, both Defence chiefs agreed that coordinated drills and training sessions must be improved.
Even before the "Vigilant Storm" exercises, North Korea test-fired a number of missiles in what it described as simulated nuclear strikes on U.S. and South Korean targets in retaliation for earlier military drills conducted by its rivals that included a U.S. aircraft for the first time in five years. North Korea also passed a new law in September allowing the preemptive use of its nuclear weapons in a variety of circumstances.
Officials from South Korea and the United States have insisted adamantly that their drills are defensive in nature and that they have no plans to invade the North.
Since South Korea's conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in May and pledged to respond more forcefully to North Korean provocations, the U.S. and South Korean forces have increased their routine military exercises. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, several of the allies' drills had been scaled back or cancelled to assist now-stalled negotiations on North Korea's nuclear development.
Officials from South Korea and the United States have claimed for months that North Korea is ready to perform its first nuclear test in five years. North Korea could conduct a nuclear test at any time, but there are still no indications that an explosion like that of a test explosion is about to happen, South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse told lawmakers on Monday.
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