SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Friday that its latest intercontinental ballistic missile launch was intended to send a “stronger warning” over combined U.S. military exercises with South Korea, blaming those for creating a “most unstable security environment” in the region.
Thursday’s launch from North Korea’s capital area came hours before South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol traveled to Tokyo for a summit with Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida. The meeting underscored Seoul’s urgency to tighten security cooperation with a fellow U.S. ally in the face of North Korean nuclear threats.
The ICBM launch was North Korea’s fourth missile event in about a week as it ratcheted up a tit-for-tat response to U.S.-South Korean military drills, the biggest of their kind in years, which began Monday and run through March 23.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong Un supervised the test-firing of the Hwasong-17 ICBM from Pyongyang’s international airport and stressed the need to “strike fear into the enemies” over what it called the “open hostility” shown to the North by the large-scale exercises.
Launched at a high angle to avoid the territory of North Korea’s neighbors, the missile reached an maximum altitude of 6,045 kilometers (3,756 miles) and traveled 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) before landing in waters off the country’s eastern coast, the KCNA said.
The South Korean and Japanese militaries had released similar flight details, which indicate the missile had a potential range to reach the U.S. mainland. It remains unclear whether the North has mastered key technologies to create a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on its long-range rockets or to ensure that the warhead survives the harsh conditions of atmospheric re-entry.
KCNA said the ICBM launch drill sends a “stronger warning” to its rivals who are escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula with their “frantic, provocative and aggressive large-scale war drills.” The test also was designed to confirm the reliability of the weapons system, the agency said.
Kim said it’s crucial for North Korea’s nuclear missile forces to maintain readiness to counterattack rivals with “overwhelming offensive measures anytime” and make them realize their persistent and expanded military actions will “bring an irreversible, grave threat to them,” KCNA said.
The launch overshadowed the summit between Yoon and Kishida, where the leaders agreed to resume defense dialogue and further strengthen their three-way security cooperation with the United States to counter North Korea and other regional challenges.
The summit comes after Yoon’s government took a major step toward improving bilateral ties strained by historical grievances. It announced plans last week to use local funds to compensate Koreans who had won damages in court against Japanese companies that enslaved them before the end of World War II.
Yoon’s plan was widely criticized at home, where many South Koreans harbor deep resentment toward Japan over its brutal colonial rule of the Korea Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Yoon said dramatic steps were necessary to improve ties with Tokyo as he pushes to strengthen South Korea’s defense in conjunction with its alliance with the United States.
“The ever-escalating threat of North Korea’s nuclear missile program poses a huge threat to peace and stability not only in East Asia but also to the (broader) international community,” Yoon said. “South Korea and Japan need to work closely together and in solidarity to wisely counter the threat.”
North Korea has long portrayed regular U.S.-South Korean military drills as rehearsals for a potential invasion, although the allies describe those exercises as defensive.
Many experts say North Korea uses its rivals’ drills as a pretext to aggressively expand its nuclear arsenal and overall military capability. They said it seeks to force the U.S. government to accept the North’s status as a nuclear power and to negotiate on issues of economic sanctions from a position of strength.
Besides the ICBM, the North has test-fired cruise missiles from a submarine and fired short-range missiles into the sea since last week, attempting to show it could conduct potential nuclear strikes on both South Korean targets and the U.S. mainland.
By Kim Tong-hyung, The Associated Press