Tensions escalated in the Korean peninsula on Wednesday (November 2) after North Korea fired at least 20 missiles east and west of its southern neighbour, with one landing near South Korean territorial waters for the first time since the two countries were divided in 1953.
One of Pyongyang’s missiles fell 57 km off the South Korean city of Sokcho, while another landed less than 30 km south of the North Limit Line (NLL), a disputed maritime border between the two Koreas, in what South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called an “effective act of territorial encroachment,” Reuters reported.
The South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said on Wednesday that it had fired three air-to-ground missiles off North Korea’s coast in retaliation. President Yoon’s office said he had ordered the launch so that North Korea “pays a clear price for its provocation.”
Why did North Korea launch the missiles?
The escalation comes after North Korea warned against the recent joint military drills between the United States and South Korea, which it views as provocative and a rehearsal for an invasion.
The US and South Korea began their largest-ever joint drills on Monday, called Operation Vigilant Storm, during a period of national mourning in South Korea, following a deadly crowd surge in Seoul on Saturday in which over 150 people died.
The drills, which are going to continue till Friday, involve hundreds of aircraft from both allied forces conducting mock attacks throughout the week. The US has deployed F-35B stealth jets in the area for the first time, and South Korean F-35A aircrafts will also take part, NK News reported. Around 380 aircraft are expected to perform 1,600 sorties for the exercise.
Pak Jong Chun, secretary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, said on the Wednesday that the number of warplanes involved in Vigilant Storm were proof that the drills were “aggressive and provocative,” adding that even its name imitated the US-led Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in the 1990’s, Reuters reported.
US and South Korean officials have maintained that the military exercises are defensive in nature and that they do not plan to attack North Korea.
The nuclear threat
On Tuesday, after calling on the US and South Korea to stop its military air drills for the second consecutive day, the North Korea Foreign Ministry warned that the two would pay “the most horrible price in history,” likely hinting at a nuclear threat. The day before, North Korea had stated that if the US and its southern neighbour would persist in the provocations, the country would take into account its “more powerful follow-up measures.”
North Korea has conducted an unprecedented number of weapons tests this year and the country’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un last month guided exercises that involved ballistic missiles armed with mock nuclear warheads, claiming it was meant to act as war deterrence, state news agency KCNA reported.
US and South Korean officials have claimed that Pyongyang is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test, the country’s first since 2017. In September, North Korea also passed a new law that allows for preemptive nuclear strikes in order to protect itself and cemented its position as an irreversible nuclear power.
The recent tit-for-tat missile strikes come at a time of heightened tensions between the two Koreas. Both fired warning shots and artillery shells at each other last month and blamed each other for breaching their maritime border.
On October 24, South Korea said it fired warning shots in the Yellow Sea after a North Korean merchant vessel crossed the Northern Limit Line. Subsequently, North Korea said it fired artillery shells in response to a South Korean naval ship breaching the maritime border, The Wall Street Journal reported.
South Korea has also been conducting a number of joint military drills with the US over the past few months, which has been strongly opposed by North Korea. They had previously been scaled back due to the Covid-19 pandemic and because South Korea’s former President Moon Jae-in had attempted to restart diplomatic talks with Pyongyang to get it to denuclearise.
President Yoon, who assumed office in May this year, has a markedly different approach to North Korea, and has vowed to “normalise” these joint exercises.
North Korea has responded to these tests by conducting a series of missile tests and military exercises. The country has launched dozens of missiles in 2022, the largest it has ever done in one year. On Friday, it fired two short-range ballistic missiles towards the Sea of Japan.
In March, the country also successfully tested its largest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) ever, the Hwasong-17, Reuters reported. South Korean and US officials have disputed it however, claiming that North Korea fired an older ICBM and that some Hwasong-17 tests had failed.