South Korea and the US have fired eight surface-to-surface missiles in response to North Korea’s latest launch.
Kim Jong Un ordered the launch of eight short-range ballistic missiles on Sunday, raising fears that he could be preparing to conduct the country’s first nuclear test since 2017.
It was North Korea’s 18th missile test of the year and came less than two weeks after its last one.
Monday morning’s launch by South Korea and the US was designed to demonstrate “the capability and readiness to carry out precision strike” against the source of North Korea’s missile launches or the command and support centres, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency cited the country’s military as saying.
The missiles – seven South Korean and one American – were fired over the course of about 10 minutes, beginning at 4.45am local time, and landed in the Sea of Japan.
It came after Japan also conducted a joint ballistic missile exercise with the US, which Tokyo said showed “rapid response capability” and “strong determination” to counter threats.
South Korea and the US had just ended joint military drills when North Korea launched its latest missiles, and the swift response is further proof of Seoul’s tougher stance since the election of President Yoon Suk-yeol.
He took office last month and quickly agreed with US President Joe Biden at a summit in Seoul to upgrade the allies’ joint military drills and their combined deterrence posture.
North Korea has previously criticised the drills as evidence of Washington’s “hostile policies” towards it, despite the president’s talk of diplomacy.
The American and South Korean leaders both say they are open to talks with Mr Kim, but Mr Biden stressed: “With regard to whether I would meet with the leader of North Korea, it would depend on whether he was sincere and whether he was serious.”
Talks between the US and North Korea have made no progress since 2019, despite face-to-face meetings between former president Donald Trump and Mr Kim.
The US wants signs of disarmament, but North Korea refuses to take such steps while tough sanctions remain at their current level.
Sanctions are unlikely to be beefed up even if a nuclear test is forthcoming, though, as the UN Security Council’s permanent members are divided on the issue. Russia and China vetoed a resolution to impose more sanctions after North Korea’s ballistic missile tests on 25 May.
Despite the frosty relations, the US has offered North Korea aid in its struggle with COVID-19, as the country continues to battle its first known outbreak since the pandemic began.