North Korea has fired two strategic cruise missiles from a submarine in a show of force just hours before the United States and South Korea began their largest joint military exercises in five years.
The tests, reported by state media on Monday, came days after leader Kim Jong Un oversaw a series of weapons launches and ordered his soldiers to intensify efforts to repel its rivals’ “frantic war preparation moves”.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the missile launches showed Pyongyong’s resolve to respond with “overwhelming powerful forces” to so-called military manoeuvres by the “the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet forces”.
KCNA also implied that North Korea aims to arm the cruise missiles tested with nuclear warheads.
Pyongyang views military exercises between the US and South Korea as rehearsals for invasion and argues its nuclear weapons and missile programmes are necessary for self-defence.
The militaries of the US and South Korea began their ‘Freedom Shield’ exercises early on Monday, the first time such large-scale drills have been held since 2018 when they were suspended in support of renewed diplomatic efforts to secure North Korea’s denuclearisation.
The latest exercises include a computer simulation called Freedom Shield 23 and several combined field training exercises, collectively known as Warrior Shield FTX.
The drills are scheduled to continue for at least 10 days and will focus on the “changing security environment” amid North Korea’s increasing nuclear threats, according to the South Korean and US armed forces.
North Korea conducted a record number of missile tests in 2022 and adopted an increasingly aggressive nuclear doctrine.
But amid the bluster some analysts expressed caution.
“North Korean cruise missiles launched from a submarine represent a threat the United States and its allies must take seriously,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said in emailed comments.
“But Pyongyang is likely exaggerating when it claims it has already armed such missiles with nuclear warheads. The Kim regime wants to show it can match or surpass military capabilities on display during U.S.-South Korea defense exercises. Yet the reality is North Korean soldiers are poorly fed and are being ordered to help farmers address the country’s food shortage.”
The state news agency reported that in the latest tests, the missiles flew for more than two hours, drawing figure-eight-shaped patterns over waters off the country’s eastern coast, and hit targets 1,500km (932 miles) away.
The missiles were fired from the 8.24 Yongung, KCNA said, referencing a submarine North Korea has used to conduct all its known submarine-launched ballistic missile tests since 2016.
Earlier, South Korea’s military said it had detected the launch from a submarine in waters near North Korea’s eastern coast in Sinpo on Sunday. The North Korean port city has a major submarine-building shipyard.
Experts say Kim is trying to pressure the US into accepting North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power and relaxing international sanctions that are crippling its economy.
“North Korea will use the Freedom Shield 2023 Exercise to unify its people and as an excuse to further invest in weapons of mass destruction,” Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean army general, told the AFP news agency.
“More missile launches with variations in style and scope should be expected with even a nuclear test. More acts of intimidation from North Korea should not come as a surprise.”
Washington has repeatedly restated its “ironclad” commitment to defending South Korea, including using the “full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear”.