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N. Korea fires 4 missiles into the sea in slap at US-S. Korean war games

By KIM GAMEL AND YOO KYONG CHANG | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 5, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired a barrage of missiles into the sea near Japan on Monday in a defiant show of force as the United States and South Korea conduct annual joint war games.

At least four medium-range ballistic missiles were launched from the Dongchang-ri long-range missile site in northwestern North Korea at about 7:36 a.m., according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff. All flew about 620 miles and reached an altitude of 160 miles before landing in the sea off the west coast of Japan, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Roh Jae-cheon said during a news briefing.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said all four missiles splashed down in the Sea of Japan, but he would not confirm whether that was the total number of missiles launched. Another U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the missiles splashed down about 200 miles off Japan's coast and at least one of the missiles was detected and tracked by the USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided-missile destroyer, which was nearby.

The United States, Japan and South Korea strongly condemned the launches — the second in three weeks.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said North Korea has become “a new kind of threat,” while South Korea’s acting president called for the early deployment of an advanced U.S. missile defense system despite China’s objections.

The barrage came as President Donald Trump’s administration weighs a new approach to dealing with the communist state, which has shown surprising progress in its nuclear-weapons program since last year despite diplomatic pressure and U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at stopping it.

The New York Times reported last week that options on the table for Trump to consider range from pre-emptive military strikes to restoring U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.

Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified defense ministry official as saying one could be an intercontinental ballistic missile. But Roh said “the possibility seems to be low,” when asked about the report.

Japanese officials said three of the four missiles landed in the 230-mile offshore area known as an exclusive economic zone, where Tokyo has sovereign rights for exploring and exploiting resources, according to The Associated Press.

The State Department also strongly condemned the missile launches, noting they violated U.N. resolutions banning Pyongyang from using ballistic-missile technology.

“We remain prepared, and will continue to take steps to increase our readiness to defend ourselves and our allies from attack, and are prepared to use the full range of capabilities at our disposal against this growing threat,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster talked to his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, by phone.

“The two condemned the repeated launches of ballistic missiles by North Korea and agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation for strong and effective sanctions and pressure against the North,” said a statement from the South Korean’s office.

Analysts said the launches were a clear protest against the military exercises but also likely were aimed at sending a signal to the Trump administration that Pyongyang is determined to persist with its ­nuclear-weapons program.

“They seem to be wanting to pressure the U.S., to obtain bargaining power and to get Washington to admit their position as a nuclear power,” said Kim Tae-woo, a professor in military studies at South Korea’s Konyang University.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s speech that the country was in the “final stages” of preparing to test-launch an ICBM, which would bring it alarmingly closer to its goal of targeting the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Pyongyang threatened last week to conduct more test launches in response to so-called Foal Eagle military exercises between Seoul and Washington that began on Wednesday and are due to last through April. The allies also are due to begin a computer-simulated command-post drill known as Key Resolve next week.

“New types of strategic weapons will soar” if the annual drills continue, the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said in a commentary on Friday.

North Korea claims the military exercises are a rehearsal for an invasion, despite U.S. and South Korean insistence that they are defensive in nature.

Pyongyang also is angry over the allies’ plans to station an advanced U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile system, known as THAAD, in the South. Those plans also have drawn the ire of Beijing, which fears the anti-missile battery’s powerful radar could be used against its military. The U.S. insists it would be aimed only at North Korea.

Tensions have been high since last year, when the North conducted two underground nuclear explosions and test-launched some two-dozen missiles. It also fired an intermediate-range missile into the sea on Feb. 12 in the first launch since Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn said Monday’s launch showed the importance of thoroughly carrying out the military exercises and making full diplomatic efforts to ensure U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions against the North are fully implemented.

He also urged the “early deployment of the THAAD” by U.S. Forces Korea and called for actively seeking ways “to effectively strengthen the extended deterrence of the U.S. for the purpose of enhancing deterrence capabilities against the North.”

Hwang, who spoke during an emergency meeting of the National Security Council’s standing committee, didn’t offer specifics. However, extended deterrence generally refers to the U.S. commitment to defend the South with nuclear as well as conventional capabilities.

The Koreas are divided by the world’s most fortified border and remain technically at war after the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty. The U.S. has about 28,500 servicemembers stationed in the South.

Stars and Stripes reporter Tara Copp contributed to this report. 

copp.tara@stripes.com

gamel.kim@stripes.com

chang.kyong@stripes.com

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