North Korea fires missiles into the sea as US warns about nuclear weapons

Seoul, South Korea (AFP) – North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea Friday in its first ballistic weapons launch in two weeks, as the US military warned North Korea that the use of nuclear weapons “will lead to the end of this regime.”

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the South Korean military detected two launches from North Korea’s eastern coastal region of Tongchon at midday Friday. It added that both missiles flew about 230 kilometers (140 miles) at a maximum altitude of 24 kilometers (15 miles).

The statement said South Korea strongly condemned the launches, describing them as a “serious provocation” that undermines regional peace and violates UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting any ballistic activities by North Korea.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said the launches highlighted the “destabilizing effect” of North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Japan’s Defense Ministry said it also monitored the launches and that the type of missiles used and their flight information were still being analyzed.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said its top nuclear envoy held separate phone conversations with his US and Japanese counterparts shortly after the launch. She said the three countries agreed to enhance tripartite coordination on North Korea while reiterating their calls for North Korea to halt weapons tests and return to talks.

The back-to-back launches, North Korea’s first ballistic missile tests since Oct. 14, came on the last day of South Korea’s annual 12-day “Hoogok” field exercises, which also included an unspecified number of US troops this year. Next week, the South Korean and US air forces are planning to conduct large-scale training as well.

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North Korea sees such regular exercises by Seoul and Washington as an exercise in launching an attack on North Korea, although allies say their exercises are defensive in nature.

Next week, the “Awakening Storm” air exercise is scheduled to take place from Monday to Friday, involving about 140 South Korean warplanes and about 100 US aircraft. The South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement earlier on Friday that the planes include advanced combat aircraft such as the F-35 from the two countries.

Since late September, North Korea has launched a barrage of missiles toward the sea in what it described as simulated tests of tactical nuclear weapons systems designed to attack South Korean and US targets. North Korea says its test activities are aimed at issuing a warning amid a series of military exercises between South Korea and the United States. But some experts say Pyongyang has also used its rivals’ exercises as an opportunity to test new weapons systems, enhance its nuclear capability and increase its influence in future dealings with Washington and Seoul.

Tongchon, the launch site for North Korea’s Friday launches, is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the inter-Korean land border. The area was closer to South Korean territory than any other missile launch site North Korea has used so far this year, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.

South Korea and the United States have strongly warned North Korea not to preemptively use its nuclear weapons.

The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy Report on Thursday said that any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners “will lead to the end of this regime.”

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“There is no scenario in which the Kim regime could use nuclear weapons and survive,” the report said. The Pentagon said it will continue to deter North Korean attacks with a “forward stance,” including nuclear deterrence, integrated air and missile defenses, and close coordination and interoperability with South Korea.

During a visit to Tokyo on Tuesday, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman confirmed that the US will use its full military capabilities, “including nuclear,” to defend its allies South Korea and Japan.

Last month, South Korea’s Defense Ministry warned North Korea that using its nuclear weapons would put it on a “path of self-destruction”.

There are fears that North Korea could up the ante in the coming weeks by conducting its first nuclear test since 2017.

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Thursday that the detonation of a new nuclear test by North Korea “would be yet another confirmation of a program moving full force forward in an incredibly worrying way.”

He said the UN agency was monitoring preparations for a new test that would be North Korea’s seventh overall, but gave no indication whether a nuclear explosion was imminent.

In recent days, North Korea has also fired hundreds of missiles into the inter-Korean sea buffer zones that the two Koreas established in 2018 to reduce front-line military tensions. North Korea said the missile launches were in response to South Korea’s live-fire exercises in land border areas.

On Monday, the two rival Koreas exchanged warning shots along their disputed western sea border, in a spectacle of bloodshed and past naval battles, with each accusing each other of border violation.

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Writer Marie Yamaguchi for the Associated Press in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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