US and South Korea fire missiles in retaliation for North Korean launch

The US and South Korean militaries have launched eight ballistic missiles into the sea in a show of force matching a North Korean missile display a day earlier that extended a provocative streak in weapons demonstrations.

The allies’ live-fire exercise on Monday involved eight Army Tactical Missile System missiles — one American and seven South Korean — fired into South Korea’s eastern waters across 10 minutes following notifications for air and maritime safety, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and US Forces Korea.

The tit-for-tat missile launches were aimed at demonstrating the ability to respond swiftly and accurately to North Korean attacks, the South Korean military said.

In this photo released by South Korea Defense Ministry via Yonhap, a missile is fired during a joint training between US and South Korea at an undisclosed location in South Korea, Monday, June 6, 2022. (South Korea Defense Ministry/Yonhap via AP) (AP)

It was North Korea’s 18th round of missile tests in 2022 alone — a streak that included the country’s first launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles in nearly five years. 

South Korean and US officials also say North Korea is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017 as leader Kim Jong Un engages in brinkmanship aimed at cementing the North’s status as a nuclear power and negotiating economic and security concessions from a position of strength.

FILE – Kim Jong Un is pushing a brinkmanship aimed at cementing the North’s status as a nuclear power. (AP)

Following North Korea’s previous ballistic launches on May 25, which South Korea’s military said involved an ICBM flown on medium-range trajectory and two short-range weapons, US and South Korean forces conducted a similar live-fire exercise.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during a speech marking the country’s Memorial Day on Monday said his government would pursue “fundamental and practical security capabilities” to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons and missile threat.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a ceremony marking the country’s Memorial Day at the Seoul National Cemetery in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool Photo via AP) (AP)

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs have grown to a point where they are not only a threat to the Korean Peninsula, but to north-east Asia and world peace,” Yoon said at the National Cemetery in Seoul, saying his government would “sternly respond to any kind of North Korean provocation.”

Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, has vowed to strengthen the South’s defence in conjunction with its alliance with the United States.

His goals include enhancing missile strike and interception capabilities and resuming large-scale military exercises with the United States, which were suspended or downsized in recent years to create space for diplomacy with Pyongyang or because of COVID-19.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, centre right, and his wife Kim Keon Hee, centre left, attend a ceremony marking the country’s Memorial Day. (Chung Sung-Jun/Pool Photo via AP) (AP)

Yoon’s dovish predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who had staked his five-year term on inter-Korean engagement, refrained from missile counter-drills after North Korea resumed ballistic missile tests in 2019 as its diplomacy with the United States fizzled.

North Korean state media have yet to comment on Sunday’s launches.

They came after the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan concluded a three-day naval drill with South Korea in the Philippine Sea on Saturday, apparently their first joint drill involving a carrier since November 2017, as the countries move to upgrade their defence exercises in the face of North Korean threats.

North Korea has long condemned the allies’ combined military exercises as invasion rehearsals and often countered with its own missile drills, including short-range launches in 2016 and 2017 that simulated nuclear attacks on South Korean ports and US military facilities in Japan.

US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, second from left, and South Korea’s landing platform helicopter (LPH) ship Marado, left, sail during a joint military exercise at an undisclosed location on Saturday. (South Korea Defense Ministry via AP) (AP)

Hours after the North Korean launches, Japan and the United States conducted a joint ballistic missile exercise aimed at showing their “rapid response capability” and “strong determination” to counter threats, Japan’s Defence Ministry said.

The United States has vowed to push for additional international sanctions if North Korea conducts a nuclear test, but the prospects for meaningful new punitive measures are dim with the UN Security Council’s permanent members divided.

Russia and China vetoed a US-sponsored resolution that would have imposed additional sanctions on North Korea over its latest ballistic tests on May 25, insisting that Washington should instead focus on reviving negotiations with Pyongyang.

In this photo provided by South Korea Presidential Office, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, center, attends at the National Security Council (NSC) meeting at the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, June 5, 2022. (AP)

Addressing the brewing animosity, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called for related nations to “maintain calm and exercise restraint, and avoid any actions that may aggravate tensions”.

Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since 2019 over disagreements in exchanging the release of crippling US-led sanctions for the North’s disarmament steps.

Kim Jong Un vows to ramp up nuclear arms development

Despite facing harsh challenges at home, including a decaying economy and a COVID-19 outbreak, Kim has shown no willingness to fully surrender an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.

His government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s offers for open-ended talks and is clearly intent on converting the dormant denuclearisation negotiations into a mutual arms-reduction process, experts say.

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