On Monday, March 13, 2023, South Korea and the United States began their largest joint military exercises in five years, despite threats from North Korea, which announced hours earlier that it had launched two cruise missiles from a submarine.
Pyongyang announced that the two missile launches were aimed at testing “nuclear deterrence in various areas,” while criticizing the “Freedom Shield” maneuvers between the US and South Korean forces, which are scheduled to last 10 days in order to combat the growing threats from Pyongyang.
The South Korean military said that these exercises “include wartime exercises to repel possible North Korean attacks and to carry out a stabilization campaign in the North.”
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff stressed that these maneuvers are “defensive (and) based on a joint operational plan.”
Exercises of this kind anger Pyongyang, which considers them a simulation of an invasion of its territory, and regularly threatens to take “crushing” action in response.
“North Korea uses missiles to (denounce) the joint maneuvers,” said Gu Myung-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Political Studies in Seoul.
“It wants to confirm that the reason for its development of missiles is for self-defense purposes,” he added.
For its part, North Korea’s foreign ministry released a statement Monday criticizing the “vicious blackmail of Americans in terms of ‘human rights'”, after Washington announced it had called a United Nations meeting this week on human rights abuses in North Korea.
North Korea indicated that “two cruise missiles accurately hit the predetermined target in the East Sea of Korea,” according to the official North Korean KCNA news agency, referring to the body of water known as the Sea of Japan.
Existing UN sanctions do not effectively prohibit Pyongyang from launching cruise missiles. However, it is not allowed to conduct tests related to its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s official news agency said that this test is linked to the fact that Seoul and Washington are “progressing more and more clearly in the framework of their military maneuvers against” North Korea.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported the discovery of at least one missile launch of an unspecified type from a North Korean submarine on Sunday, adding that US and South Korean intelligence services are analyzing the facts.
Pictures broadcast by North Korean state media show a Yeongong 8.24 submarine and a missile flying in the sky, as well as white smoke and flames.
However, experts expressed “great doubts” about the progress of Pyongyang’s submarine programme. Park Won-joon, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the broadcasted images indicate that the missile was fired over the surface of the water.
“In this case, it is useless (to carry out the launch) from a submarine,” he told AFP, “because it is not hidden.”
In the year 2022, North Korea has described its status as a nuclear power “irreversible” and has conducted a record number of ballistic tests, in violation of UN resolutions.
On Friday, North Korea’s official news agency reported that Kim Jong Un had ordered his army to intensify its military maneuvers in anticipation of a “real war”.
Washington has repeatedly affirmed its “unwavering” commitment to defending South Korea by using “the full range of its military capabilities, including nuclear” and recently sought to reassure Seoul of its expanded deterrent capabilities with its allies.
This comes as South Korea seeks to reassure a somewhat anxious public about US commitments regarding the so-called extended deterrence that can prevent attacks against allies, thanks to US military means, including nuclear weapons.
While the two countries’ official policy towards North Korea, which centers around the North Korean leader giving up his nuclear weapons and returning to the negotiating table, has not changed, experts believe there is a change in practice.
The dissident, Ahn Chan Il, director of the International Institute for North Korean Studies, told AFP that Washington had “actually recognized that North Korea will never give up its nuclear program.”
He added that Freedom Shield will therefore be “completely different – both qualitatively and quantitatively – from previous joint exercises that took place in recent years.”
In return, Pyongyang is likely to use the Freedom Shield as an “excuse” to invest more in banned weapons programs, according to Chun In Bum, a retired general in the South Korean army.
“More missile launches, with differences in style and range, and even a nuclear test should be expected. More acts of intimidation by North Korea would not be surprising,” he said.