North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) toward its eastern coast around 11:05 a.m. on Sunday, March 19, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). The missile was launched from the Dongchang-ri area in North Pyongan Province and flew about 800 km.
The missile launch came three days after the North launched a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and was the fourth missile launch in a week, since North Korea test-launched two cruise missiles from a submarine on March 12.
The latest missile launch was carried out about 25 minutes before a U.S. B-1B strategic bomber deployed in South Korea for joint exercises. The North might have detected the B-1B bomber approaching the Korean Peninsula and intentionally launched the SRBM in response.
The South Korean military said it is satisfied with the progress of the joint military drills with the United States, which kicked off on March 13, adding that it is adopting a stance of firm military readiness on the basis of overwhelming response capabilities to cope with any future North Korea provocations.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launch on Sunday, saying the North’s recent missile launches “highlight the destabilizing impact of its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs.”
The G-7 Foreign Ministers also published a statement on Sunday, saying the North’s ICBM launch on March 16 undermined regional and international peace and security.
“We urge North Korea to engage in meaningful diplomacy toward denuclearization and accept the repeated offers of dialogue put forward by Japan, the United States, and the Republic of Korea,” the statement said. (Republic of Korea is the formal name of South Korea.)
A day after the SRBM launch, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), one of North Korea’s main state-controlled media, reported that the military carried out “a nuclear counterattack simulation drill” over the weekend.
“The combined tactical drill simulating a nuclear counterattack by the units for the operation of tactical nukes was carried out under the tense situation in which a large-scale war drill is being frantically scaled up by the U.S.-South Korean allied forces to invade the DPRK and U.S. nuclear strategic assets are massively brought to South Korea,” KCNA said. (DPRK is an acronym of the North’s official name: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
“The drill also aimed to demonstrate our tougher will to make an actual war response and send a stronger warning to the enemy who expand their war drills for aggression and take a series of military actions strong in their offensive nature, getting undisguised in their explicit attempt to unleash a war against the DPRK in disregard of its repeated warnings,” KCNA added.
According to the KCNA report, Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of North Korea, guided the drill and attended with his beloved and respected daughter Kim Ju Ae, who has been in the spotlight since she appeared at the ICBM launch in November 2022.
South Korea and the United States have reinvigorated military drills in order to enhance their joint capabilities to respond to a scenario of the North using nuclear weapons. Like South Korea and the U.S., North Korea too conducted exercises involving nuclear assets over the weekend.
“The two-day combined tactical drill for nuclear counterattack was held, divided into an exercise for managing the nuclear strike control system, an actual training for switching to taking nuclear counterattack posture, and a drill for launching tactical ballistic missile tipped with a mock nuclear warhead,” KCNA said.
According to the KCNA report, Sunday’s missile launch was “simulating a tactical nuclear attack.”
“The tactical ballistic missile launched in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province accurately exploded at 800 meters above the target waters in the East Sea of Korea set in its 800 km strike range, thus proving once again the reliability of the operation of nuclear explosion control devices and detonators fitted in the nuclear warhead,” KCNA said. Considering the range and the information shared by the North’s state media, Pyongyang appears to have launched the newest type of its KN-series SRBM.
While signaling that the drill was inevitable due to the growing threats posed by the United States and South Korea, Kim ordered his military to be perfectly prepared for any unexpected and unwanted circumstances – a nuclear war with the United States and South Korea – as the fact that his country has nuclear weapons is not enough to deter a war. North Korea lowered the threshold for using its nuclear weapons in September 2022 and continues legitimizing its ballistic missile launches as necessary for self-defense.
“Saying that the present situation, in which the enemies are getting ever more pronounced in their moves for aggression against the DPRK, urgently requires the DPRK to bolster up its nuclear war deterrence exponentially, he [Kim] set forth the important nuclear force-building orientation and the strategic tasks to be fulfilled in preparing the nuclear force for a war,” KCNA said.
In the wake of North Korea’s series of recent ballistic missile launches, the U.N. Security Council will hold a meeting on Monday to discuss the issue. However, China and Russia, two permanent members of the Security Council, have pointed to the scaled-up South Korea-U.S joint military drills as the main reason for escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula and triggering the series of the North’s ballistic missile launches.
A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said last week that China was “gravely concerned” over the latest South Korea-U.S. exercises, adding that “The crux of how the Korean Peninsula situation gets to where it is today is clear. The main reason is that the parties concerned have refused to respond to the denuclearization measures taken by the DPRK, and continued to pressure and deter the DPRK.”
It’s unlikely the Security Council will join together to punish the illicit ballistic missile launches of North Korea, as China and Russia would veto the U.S.-led idea to impose additional sanctions on North Korea.
The ongoing South Korea-U.S. regular springtime joint military drills will end on March 23. Considering the corresponding actions of North Korea over the drills, Pyongyang may likely conduct more missile tests in the coming weeks.