North Korea has warned South Korea and the United States that their decision to extend the “Vigilant Storm” joint-military air drills would push tension to “an uncontrollable phase”, South Korean media reported.
Pyongyang denounced as “very dangerous” the decision by Washington and Seoul on Thursday to extend their air drills in response to North Korea’s launch of ballistic missiles, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), earlier in the day.
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Pak Jong-chon, secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, made the warning in a statement carried in State-controlled media, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
“It was reported that the US and South Korea decided to extend the combined air drill Vigilant Storm,” the party secretary said in the statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
“It is a very dangerous and false choice,” he said, according to Yonhap.
“The irresponsible decision of the US and South Korea is shoving the present situation, caused by provocative military acts of the allied forces, to an uncontrollable phase,” he added.
The Vigilant Storm drills – which began on Monday and were scheduled to end on Friday – involve some 240 fighter jets and other military aircraft conducting about 1,600 joint missions. The air drills followed days after the South Korean military wrapped up the 12-day Hoguk 22 field exercises, in which an undisclosed number of US troops had participated.
North Korea launches ballistic missiles
In a statement earlier in the day, the South Korean military said the US had agreed to extend Vigilant Storm owing to North Korea’s “recent provocations”.
Chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Kim Seung-kyum and the head of US Forces Korea Paul LaCamera also held a virtual meeting and reaffirmed their commitment to “a stronger combined defence posture”, according to the statement.
North Korea has long condemned joint military drills between the US and South Korea as a rehearsal for invasion and had warned of “powerful follow-up measures” should the air warfare exercises go ahead this week.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korea launched three ballistic missiles, including a suspected ICBM. The launch followed Wednesday’s firing of at least 20 missiles, the most in a single day by North Korea, including one that landed off South Korea’s coast for the first time.
Seoul responded by sending fighter jets to fire air-to-ground missiles into water north of its border.
Alongside its missile launches, Pyongyang has adopted an escalatory nuclear doctrine that authorises preemptive nuclear attacks over a variety of loosely defined crisis situations.
South Korea and the US condemned Thursday’s launches, with Washington urging all nations to enforce sanctions on North Korea for violating United Nations Security Council resolutions that bar missiles and nuclear tests.
Ned Price, a spokesman for the US State Department, said North Korea had demonstrated that it was a threat to “its neighbours, the region, international peace and security, and the global non-proliferation regime”.
Pentagon stresses deterrence
Later on Thursday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stressed in a joint news briefing with his South Korean counterpart Lee Jong-sup that the two countries are working together to deter potential attacks by the North.
“We don’t want to see anyone make a decision to employ a nuclear device,” Austin told reporters.
“One of the things that sends a strong deterrent message is our ability to work together and to be interoperable, and our ability to train our troops to a high level of capability and also maintain a combat credible force in the region,” he added.
South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun-dong and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had condemned North Korea’s series of missile launches as “deplorable, immoral” during a phone call on Thursday, Seoul’s foreign ministry said.
US President Joe Biden and his national security team were “assessing the situation,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement, adding that the United States would take “all necessary measures” to ensure security.
In brief comments to reporters a few minutes later, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, “North Korea’s repeated missile launches are an outrage and absolutely cannot be forgiven.”
Kishida called for greater trilateral security cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea.
Nuclear talks between the US and North Korea broke down in early 2019 over disagreements over denuclearisation steps and have remained stalled since.
North Korea has so far ignored Biden’s calls for open-ended discussions, insisting that Washington should first discard its “hostile” policy, a term it mainly uses to describe sanctions and the joint US-South Korea military exercises.