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US and South Korea hold drills as North launches missiles from submarine


SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean and U.S. militaries kicked off their largest joint drills in years on Monday, as North Korea said it conducted submarine-launched cruise missile tests in protest apparent against the exercises which she considers a rehearsal of invasion.

North Korea’s missile tests on Sunday indicate the country is likely to carry out provocative weapons testing activities during the 11-day U.S.-South Korea drills. Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his troops to be ready to repel “frenzied war-readiness moves” by his rivals.

The South Korean and American exercises include a computer simulation called Freedom Shield 23 and several combined field training exercises, collectively known as Warrior Shield FTX.

South Korean and US authorities did not immediately release details of Monday’s drills.

But they said earlier the computer simulation was designed to bolster allies’ defense and response capabilities in the face of North Korea’s growing nuclear threats and other changing security environments. They said the on-field exercises would also return to the scale of their biggest on-field training called Foal Eagle, which was last held in 2018.

A recent statement from the U.S. military said the field exercises were to further enhance “cooperation between the two militaries through air, land, sea, space, cyber and special operations, and improve tactics, techniques and procedures”.

North Korea told state media that its launches of two cruise missiles from a submarine off its east coast showed its determination to respond with “overwhelming and powerful” force to the escalating maneuvers military forces of “US imperialists and South Korean puppet forces”.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Monday called the missiles “strategic” weapons and said their launches checked the operational posture of the country’s “nuclear war deterrent”. This implies that North Korea aims to arm cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.

He said the missiles flew for more than two hours, drawing figure-eight patterns and hitting targets 930 miles away. The missiles were fired from ship 8.24 Yongung, KCNA said, referring to a submarine North Korea used to conduct its first submarine-launched ballistic missile test in 2016.

Reported launch details show that Japan, including U.S. military bases in Okinawa, is within striking distance of cruise missiles, if fired from North Eastern waters, said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. . He added that the weapons could even reach the peaceful US territory of Guam if the submarine could operate at a greater distance from North Korean waters.

Sunday’s actions were the North’s first underwater missile launches since it tested a weapon from a silo under an indoor tank last October. Last May, the country tested a short-range ballistic missile from the same submarine.

North Korea’s mastery of submarine-launched missile systems would make it harder for adversaries to detect launches in advance and provide the North with a retaliatory attack capability. Experts say it would take years, considerable resources and major technological upgrades for the heavily sanctioned nation to build a fleet of multiple submarines that could quietly travel the seas and reliably execute strikes.

Kim Dong-yub, the professor, said Sunday’s tests were the North’s first known cruise missile launches from a submarine, as its previous underwater launches had all involved ballistic missiles. He said North Korea was pushing for various types of missiles and launch platforms to improve its ability to evade pre-launch detection or in-flight interception.

South Korea’s military confirmed the latest North Korean missile launches on Sunday, saying they were fired from a submarine in waters near the northeastern port city of Sinpo. Sinpo has a major submarine construction shipyard.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said they remained ready in close coordination with the United States. He said South Korean and US intelligence authorities were analyzing details of Sunday’s launches.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.