SEOUL, Feb 24 (AP): North Korea said on Friday it test-fired long-range cruise missiles off its eastern coast a day earlier, adding to a provocative streak in weapons demonstrations as its rivals step up military training.
The launches, which were later confirmed by South Korea’s military, were intended to verify the reliability of the missiles and the rapid-response capabilities of the unit that operates those weapons, North Korean state media said.
The launches took place as the U.S. and South Korea held a simulation in Washington aimed at sharpening their response to North Korean nuclear threats.
Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said the four missiles flew for nearly three hours after being launched from the northeastern coast, drew oval and figure-eight patterns above the sea, and showed they can hit targets 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the flight details announced by North Korea had discrepancies with the readings by U.S. and South Korean intelligence assets, but it didn’t elaborate. It said the allies were continuing to analyze the launches.
Lee Hyojung, spokesperson of Seoul’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, denounced North Korea for escalating its testing activity despite signs of deepening economic isolation and food insecurity.
North Korea first tested a long-range cruise missile system in September 2021 and has implied the missiles are being developed to be armed with nuclear warheads.
It also test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile Saturday and a pair of short-range missiles Monday to demonstrate a dual ability to conduct nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S. mainland.
North Korea said Monday’s short-range launches were a response to the United States flying B-1B bombers to the region for joint training with South Korean and Japanese warplanes on Sunday in a show of force following the North’s ICBM test.
Prior to the ICBM launch, North Korea vowed an “unprecedentedly” strong response over a series of military drills planned by Seoul and Washington. North Korea has described the annual U.S.-South Korea drills as rehearsals for a potential invasion, although the allies say their exercises are defensive in nature.
Cruise missiles are among a growing number of North Korean weapons and are designed to be manoeuvrable in flight to evade defences.
Since the collapse of negotiations with the United States in 2019, North Korea has been accelerating its development of short-range solid-fuel ballistic missiles targeting South Korea, including those that travel on low trajectories that theoretically would be harder to intercept.
North Korea is also trying to develop solid-fuel ICBMs, which could be easier to move on vehicles and can be fired faster than the North’s existing liquid-fuel ICBMs, reducing opportunities for opponents to detect the launches and counter them.
North Korea is coming off a record year in weapons demonstrations with more than 70 ballistic missiles fired, including ICBMs with potential to reach the U.S. mainland. It also conducted what it described as simulated nuclear attacks against South Korean and U.S. targets.
Leader Kim Jong Un doubled down on his nuclear push entering 2023, calling for an “exponential increase” in nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting “enemy” South Korea and the development of more advanced ICBMs.
The US Department of Defence and South Korea’s Defence Ministry said their militaries conducted a simulation at the Pentagon on Wednesday that was focused on the possibility of North Korea using nuclear weapons. The allies discussed ways to demonstrate their “strong response capabilities and resolve to response appropriately” to any North Korean nuclear use.