North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into its East Sea early Wednesday. This appeared to be a declaration of defiance as the United States deployed a nuclear submarine to South Korea for the first time in decades.
The launches came as the US-led United Nations command tried on Tuesday afternoon to secure the release of a US soldier who had fled to North Korea from the South Korean side of a border village.
Private Second Class Travis King, in his early 20s, had just been released from a South Korean prison where he was being held for assault. Rather than board a plane to be taken back to Fort Bliss, Texas, he left the country and took part in a tour of the Korean border village of Panmunjom, where he ran across the border, US officials say.
South Korea’s chiefs of staff said North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles from an area near the capital Pyongyang between 3:30 a.m. and 3:46 a.m., which flew about 550 kilometers (341 miles) before landing in waters east of the Korean peninsula .
These flight details were similar to the Japanese military’s assessment that the missiles landed outside of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone and that there were no immediate reports of damage from ships or aircraft in the affected areas.
The flight distance of the North Korean missiles was roughly equivalent to the distance between Pyongyang and the South Korean port of Busan, where the USS Kentucky arrived on Tuesday afternoon in the first visit of a US nuclear submarine to South Korea since the 1980s.
Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada told reporters that the North Korean missiles were flying at a low trajectory, reaching their maximum altitude of about 50 kilometers (31 miles), and that they may have exhibited “erratic flight maneuvers.”
Japan has previously used similar language to describe the flight characteristics of a North Korean weapon modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile. It flies at low altitude and is designed to be maneuverable in flight to improve its chances of evading anti-missile defenses.
South Korea’s General Staff condemned the North Korean shootings as a “major provocation” threatening regional peace and stability, and said South Korean and US militaries were closely monitoring the North for further arms activity.
Wednesday’s launches marked the North’s first ballistic activity since July 12, when it in-flight tested a new solid-fuel ICBM that showed potential range deep into the US mainland. That launch was overseen by the country’s authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, who pledged to further increase his country’s nuclear combat capabilities amid increased military activity between the US and South Korea, which he says has been responsible for the deteriorating security environment on the Korean peninsula strengthen.
Tensions in the region have risen in recent months as the pace of both North Korea’s weapons tests and joint US-South Korea military exercises in a contest have increased.
Since early 2022, North Korea has test-launched around 100 missiles while attempting to demonstrate its dual capability of conducting nuclear strikes on both South Korea and the continental United States. In response, the allies have stepped up joint military training and agreed to increase the deployment of strategic US assets such as long-range bombers, aircraft carriers and submarines in the region.
Regular visits to South Korea by American nuclear ballistic missile submarines were one of several agreements reached by US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol in April in response to the mounting nuclear threat to North Korea. They also agreed to further expand joint military exercises, strengthen joint planning for nuclear emergencies, and set up a bilateral nuclear advisory group, which held its inaugural meeting in Seoul on Tuesday.
The moves were intended to allay South Korean concerns about North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal and to quell voices within the South urging the country to pursue its own nuclear weapons program.
US Forces Korea said in a statement that the Kentucky’s arrival in Busan reflected the United States’ “iron-clad” commitment to “enhanced deterrence,” citing pledges to provide its allies with all military capabilities, including nuclear capabilities , To defend.
The Ohio-class submarine could be armed with about 20 Trident II ballistic missiles with a range of 12,000 kilometers (7,456 miles), said Moon Keun-sik, a submarine expert at Kyonggi University teaches in South Korea.
“From this submarine, the US can launch attacks (on North Korea) from anywhere in the world… But there will certainly be backlash from North Korea and China because it’s like deploying the world’s most covert and menacing nuclear weapons force .” on her doorstep,” he said.
While some South Korean conservatives have expressed disappointment that the April Biden-Yoon meeting failed to reach an agreement on the deployment of US nuclear weapons or strategic assets in the South, the placement of nuclear weapons off the coast and on submarines “is actually in many ways a stronger deterrent,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at Washington’s Center for a New American Security.
“Deterrence is enhanced when the location of American strategic assets is unknown to the adversary as long as the adversary knows those weapons exist,” Kim said.
Still, Seoul and Washington need to find the “sweet spot” when it comes to visibility of America’s enhanced deterrence.
“Too much visibility of strategic assets could actually undermine the deterrent effect, while too little could raise engagement issues in Seoul,” Kim said.
AP writer Mari Yamaguchi and video journalist Haruka Nuga contributed from Tokyo.