The United States, South Korea and Japan carried out a joint missile defence exercise in waters near the Korean Peninsula on Monday as they expand military training to counter the growing threat from North Korea’s nuclear-capable missiles.
Last week, North Korea conducted one of its most provocative weapons demonstrations in years by flight-testing for the first time an intercontinental ballistic missile powered by solid propellants, as it pursues a weapon that is more responsive, harder to detect and could directly target the continental United States.
North Korea’s unprecedented run of weapons tests has so far involved more than 100 missiles of various ranges fired into the sea since the start of 2022 as the country attempts to build a viable nuclear arsenal that could threaten its rival neighbours and the US.
The training exercise could trigger a belligerent response from North Korea, which condemns the US’s military drills with its Asian allies as invasion rehearsals. The North has used those drills as a pretext to accelerate its own weapons development, creating a cycle of tit-for-tat that has raised tensions in recent months.
The one-day exercise involved an Aegis destroyer from each country and came as the US and South Korea also launched separate, five-day aerial drills involving some 110 warplanes, including advanced F-35 fighter jets.
South Korean navy spokesman Jang Do-young said in a news briefing: “The (trilateral) drills’ goal is to improve our response capabilities against ballistic missiles and strengthen our ability to conduct joint operations as North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats continue to escalate.”
The US-South Korean aerial drills are aimed at sharpening combined operational abilities and demonstrating the countries’ joint defence postures in the face of North Korean threats, Seoul’s Defence Ministry said.
Also on Monday, South Korea and Japan resumed a security meeting of senior diplomats and defence officials following a five-year hiatus.
The meeting is one of many recent events which show that ties between Seoul and Tokyo are improving in the face of North Korea’s evolving nuclear threats after years of disputes over history and trade.
During Monday’s meeting, South Korea’s Defence Ministry said Seoul and Tokyo discussed North Korea’s nuclear programme and a trilateral co-operation with the United States.
The US and South Korea carried out their biggest filed exercises in years in March and have also held separate naval and aerial drills involving an American aircraft carrier battle group and nuclear-capable B-52 bombers. The North responded by dialling up its own testing activity.
On Saturday, a South Korean naval vessel fired warning shots to repel a North Korean patrol vessel which temporarily crossed the countries’ disputed western sea boundary while chasing a Chinese fishing boat. There were no exchanges of fire between the North and South Korean vessels.
While the South’s military strengthened monitoring and readiness after the intrusion, it did not immediately detect any unusual activity from the North Korean military, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Lee Sung Jun said on Monday.
North Korea’s aggressive nuclear push under ruler Kim Jong Un is aimed at forcing the United States to accept the idea of the North as a legitimate nuclear power and negotiating economic concessions from a position of strength, many experts say. Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have remained derailed since 2019.
However, there are also signs that the costs of Mr Kim’s campaign are piling up as North Korea apparently grapples with food insecurity and other domestic problems worsened by pandemic-related border restrictions that disrupted trade with China, its main ally and economic lifeline. Chasing tangible economic achievements, the government has prioritised construction and agricultural projects.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said on Monday that Mr Kim attended an event over the weekend celebrating the building of 10,000 new homes in a district in Pyongyang. The project is part of broader plans to supply 50,000 new homes in the capital under a five-year national development plan that runs through 2025.
During Sunday’s event, Mr Kim called the housing project a “long-cherished plan” aimed at providing his people with “more stable and civilised living conditions,” KCNA said.
Experts say North Korea has severe shortages in quality housing that deepened over decades of economic decay. But living conditions are much better in Pyongyang, where Mr Kim has in recent years pushed huge development projects which upgraded housing for the elite and changed the city’s skyline.