North Korea launches missiles to test Seoul-Washington deterrence

President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a National Security Council meeting at the presidential office in Yongsan District, Seoul, Wednesday, following North Korea's test launch of three ballistic missiles. Courtesy of presidential office

S. Korea, US counter by firing ground-to-ground missiles into East Sea

By Nam Hyun-woo

North Korea fired three missiles, including what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), off its east coast on Wednesday, putting to test an extended Seoul-Washington deterrence against the bellicose regime pledged by President Yoon Suk-yeol and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden during their summit over the past weekend.

The South Korean government, along with the United States, responded with a show of force. Both the South Korean and U.S. militaries countered the missile launch by firing ground-to-ground missiles off the east coast, following Yoon's order to pursue "practical measures on extended deterrence and stronger combined defense capabilities between South Korea and the U.S."

Graphic by Cho Sang-won

According to Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the North launched three ballistic missiles from the Sunan area near Pyongyang from 6 a.m. to 6:42 a.m.

The first missile, which was assumed to be an ICBM, flew 360 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of 540 kilometers. The second one disappeared from the radar at an altitude of 20 kilometers, while the third one, assumed to be a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), traveled 760 kilometers after ascending to an altitude of 60 kilometers.

The South Korean military reportedly believes the first missile was the Hwasong-17, which was unveiled in October 2020 and has been tested since February this year. The second and third missiles appear to have been the KN-23, also known as the North Korean version of the Russian Iskander-M.

Yoon presided over a National Security Council meeting at 7:30 a.m., and "strongly condemned the launch as a serious provocation which violates U.N. Security Council resolutions, escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia and threatens international peace," according to Seoul's presidential office.

During the meeting, Yoon ordered practical measures to "exercise extended deterrence," which refers to the U.S. commitment to deter or respond to adversaries' coercions or nuclear and non-nuclear military attacks on U.S. allies and partners. The leaders of South Korea and the U.S. agreed to exercise extended deterrence during their summit last weekend.

"North Korea's continued provocations will only result in stronger and swifter combined deterrence between South Korea and the U.S., and will further isolate North Korea from the international society," the government said in an official statement.

"The government is prepared to respond strongly and effectively to any North Korean provocation and will take practical steps to protect the security of South Korea and the safety of the people based on the solid South Korea-U.S. alliance," it added.

A Hyunmoo-II missile is launched from a military vehicle in an unidentified location in South Korea, Wednesday, in this photo provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. South Korea launched the Hyunmoo-II in response after North Korea fired three ballistic missiles earlier that day.

Following the comment, the JCS announced that the South Korean military launched a Hyunmoo-II missile and the U.S. military fired an ATACMS missile into the East Sea to display their capabilities of striking targets. An official at the JCS said the Hyunmoo-II missile was launched at around 10:20 a.m.

The JCS added that more than 30 F-15K fighters from the South Korean Air Force conducted an "elephant walk" drill, Tuesday, after it identified signs of North's missile launch. An elephant walk is an exercise involving fully-armed aircraft taxiing on the tarmac.

National Security Advisor Kim Sung-han and his U.S. counterpart Jake Sullivan, Foreign Minister Park Jin and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and his counterpart Lloyd Austin, each spoke over the telephone to discuss the allies' strategy to counter North Korea's threats.

"The Yoon government's three-pillar response to the North's military actions is comprised of clearly stating whether a projectile is a missile, rocket or ballistic missile, showing actions corresponding to the North's military movements, and finally, South Korea and the U.S. will jointly make these moves and closely cooperate with the international society," said Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy director of the Office of National Security.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, walks around the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile on a launcher near Pyongyang in this photo carried by the North's Korean Central News Agency in March. Yonhap

The strong response came as North Korea launched the missiles even before Biden arrived in Washington following his Asia trip to South Korea and Japan. During his stay in Seoul, Yoon and Biden agreed to step up combined military exercises and strengthen extended deterrence against Pyongyang's threats.

The two leaders also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to deploy strategic assets "in a timely and coordinated manner as necessary," which means long-range bombers such as the B-52H, the B-1B or the B-2 could be deployed.

According to Flightradar24, an internet-based service showing real-time aircraft flight-tracking information, a U.S. Air Force B-52H "stratofortress" long-range bomber flew over waters southeast of Japan on Wednesday afternoon.

The B-52H, which can carry 32 tons of missiles, including 12 nuclear-armed AGM-129 missiles, has been anticipated to be one of the strategic assets that the U.S. could deploy near South Korea. In February, the U.S. deployed four B-52H bombers to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, and the aircraft that flew over waters near Japan Wednesday is believed to have been one of them, sources said.

"During the summit, there have been multiple achievements in strengthening the South Korea-U.S. alliance, but the North fired missiles even before Biden returned home," an official at the presidential office said. "We believe this provocation of firing an ICBM and SRBM at the same time contains (North Korea's) strategic implication."

Experts said that Pyongyang sought to show its confidence that it could evade the South Korea-U.S. missile defense system by firing an ICBM and SRBM subsequently.

"The move seems to be North Korea showing off that it can make the Seoul-Washington extended deterrence useless, by launching missiles with various ranges and altitudes at the same time," said Prof. Park Won-gon at Ewha Womans University. "The crux of extended deterrence is the nuclear and missile defense capability. If the North fires missiles in a combination like today, the missile defense system may not be fully functional."

Air Force F-15K fighters perform an elephant walk at an unidentified air base in South Korea, Tuesday. Courtesy of Ministry of National Defense

Though it is a clear message to the South and the U.S., Park said it remains to be seen until Thursday to see how Pyongyang's media outlets will cover the launches.

"In the previous three rounds of missile tests, the regime did not announce this through its media outlet in apparent consideration of North Korean public sentiment on the costly launches amid the COVID-19 outbreak," Park said. "If North Korean media do not report Wednesday's launch, it could be because of the pandemic, and an anticipated nuclear weapon test would be delayed further. So it is important to monitor tomorrow's coverage."

First deputy director of national security Kim told reporters that there is a chance of North Korea conducting a nuclear weapon test in a day or two as South Korea assesses that the North has already tested a nuclear detonator device.

Kim said it was difficult to presume the timing of an actual nuclear test after those detonation tests, but it appears that the regime has entered "the final phase of testing its nuclear capability."

The presidential office added, however, that the government's intention to provide humanitarian aids to control North Korea's COVID-19 outbreak will not be changed by the missile launch.

Nam Hyun-woo

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