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Why did North, South Korea fire missiles at each other? What happens next?

North and South Korea have for the first time fired missiles landing in water off each other’s coasts.

Seoul, calling Pyongyang’s actions of launching missiles ‘unacceptable’, fired back hours at North Korea hours later.

Seoul said it had fired three air-to-ground missiles into the sea towards the north of the two countries’ maritime boundary.

This after President Yoon called a meeting of the National Security Council, ordering “swift and stern measures so that North Korea’s provocations pay a clear price”.

Let’s take a look:

What happened?

North Korea fired at least 17 missiles Wednesday, including one that landed close to South Korea’s waters in what President Yoon Suk-yeol said was “effectively a territorial invasion”.

It also fired an artillery barrage into a maritime “buffer zone”.

It was the first time a ballistic missile had landed near the South’s waters since the peninsula was divided in 1945, and the most missiles fired by the North in a single day.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

“North Korea fired three short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea,” the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement, referring to the body of water also known as the Sea of Japan.

One of the missiles landed in waters just 57 kilometres east of the mainland, Seoul’s military said, adding it was a “very rare and intolerable” incident.

One short-range ballistic missile crossed the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border, prompting a rare warning for residents on the island of Ulleungdo to seek shelter in bunkers.

Seoul’s military said it was the “first time since the peninsula was divided” at the end of Korean War hostilities in 1953 that a North Korean missile had landed so close to the South’s territorial waters.

“President Yoon pointed out today that North Korea’s provocation is an effective territorial invasion by a missile,” his office said in a statement.

Why did North South Korea fire missiles at each other What happens next

A TV screen shows a file image of North Korea’s missile launch. AP

South Korean warplanes fired three air-to-ground missiles into the sea north across the NLL in response, the South’s military said. An official said the weapons used included an AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER, which is a U.S.-made “stand-off” precision attack weapon that can fly for up to 270 km with a 360-kg (800-lb) warhead.

When asked whether the missile was flying towards the South’s territory and should have been intercepted, a senior presidential official said: “Strictly speaking, it did not land in our territory but in the Exclusive Economic Zone under our jurisdiction, therefore it was not subject to interception.”

South Korea closed some air routes over the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, advising local airlines to detour to “ensure passenger safety in the routes to the United States and Japan”.

Japan also confirmed the launch of suspected North Korean ballistic missiles, with the coastguard warning vessels to take care.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters: “As we see tensions rising in the Korean Peninsula, I would like to hold a national security meeting as soon as possible.”

The Guardian quoted Japan’s defence minister Yasukazu Hamada as saying: “North Korea has recently launched ballistic missiles in rapid succession and has unilaterally escalated its persistent provocations. North Korea’s actions threaten the peace and security of our country, the region, and the international community, and are absolutely unacceptable.”

Why did North Korea fire missiles?

Experts say North Korea’s actions come as part of an “aggressive and threatening” response by Pyongyang to the large-scale joint air drills the United States and South Korea are currently conducting known as the Vigilant Storm air drills.

As per The Guardian hundreds of warplanes including advanced stealth jets are staging mock attacks around the clock during the exercise the first of its kind in half a decade.

Thousands of service members will fly nearly 1,600 sorties, as per Indian Express.

The drills, which will continue till 4 October, were preceded by 12 days of amphibious naval exercises.

The exercises were in past years scaled back due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the then-President of South Korea Moon Jae-in’s attempt to restart diplomatic talks with the North to denuclearise Pyongyang, as per Indian Express.

In June 2018, South Korea and the United States under the Donald Trump administration had agreed to suspend joint military exercises to give diplomatic efforts with North Korea “every opportunity to continue.”

North Korea earlier called the exercise “a war drill for aggression mainly aimed at striking the strategic targets of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] in case of contingency in the Korean Peninsula.”

The Korea Times quoted Pak Jong Chon, a high-ranking official in North Korea, as calling the drills aggressive and provocative.

“If the US and South Korea attempt to use armed forces against the DPRK without any fear, the special means of the DPRK’s armed forces will carry out their strategic mission without delay and the US and South Korea will have to face a terrible case and pay the most horrible price in history,”  Pak added.

Pak further said the name of the exercises harks back to Operation Desert Storm, the US-led military assault on Iraq in 1990-1991 after it invaded Kuwait.

As per The Guardian, Pyongyang fired the missiles hours after warning that such “military rashness and provocation can be no longer tolerated”.

The test follows a recent blitz of launches, including what the North said were tactical nuke drills, that Washington and Seoul have repeatedly warned could culminate in another nuclear test — which would be Pyongyang’s seventh.

Why did North South Korea fire missiles at each other What happens next

A TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea’s missile launch. AP

State department spokesperson Ned Price said that the drills were “purely defensive in nature” and that the United States had made clear to North Korea that it harboured no hostile intent.

Price added that the United States and its allies had also made clear that there would be “profound costs and profound consequences” if North Korea resumed nuclear testing. He did not elaborate.

What do experts say happens next?

Anywhere from a nuclear test to armed conflict, say worried experts.

The huge volley of launches were “provocations against South Korea,” said Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they lead up to a nuclear test,” he added.

Nuclear-armed North Korea has tested a record number of missiles this year, and officials in Seoul and Washington say the North has completed technical preparations to conduct a nuclear weapon test for the first time since 2017.

Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP Wednesday’s missile launches appeared to be “the most aggressive and threatening armed demonstration against the South since 2010.”

“It is now a dangerous and unstable situation that could lead to armed conflicts,” he said.

As far as I can remember, North Korea has never made such a provocation when South Korea and the US were holding their joint drills,” Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha University, told AFP.

“Pyongyang seems to have completed its most powerful deterrent. This is a serious threat. The North also seems confident in their nuclear capabilities.”

In March 2010, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan, killing 46 sailors including 16 who were on their military service.

In November the same year, the North shelled a South Korean border island, killing two marines — both of them young conscripts.

With inputs from agencies

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