Warships participating in trilateral anti-submarine warfare exercises by South Korea, the US, and Japan are seen conducting maneuver drills in the international waters of the East Sea on Sept. 30. From right: the Aegis-equipped destroyer USS Benfold (DDG), the Korean Navy destroyer ROKS Munmu the Great (DDH-II), the US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN), the Japanese destroyer JS Asahi (DD), and the US cruiser USS Chancellorsville (CG). The warships are led by the US nuclear-powered submarine USS Annapolis (SSN). (Republic of Korea Navy)
North Korea conducted multiple rounds of missile tests in a matter of just a few days last week on Sept. 25, 28, and 29.
The tests came against the backdrop of South Korea-US joint naval exercises from Sept. 26 to 29, which included the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. Also taking place around the same time were US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the DMZ on Sept. 29 and trilateral anti-submarine warfare exercises with the US and Japan on Sept. 30.
The recent missile launches by North Korea have two unique characteristics.
To begin with, this marks the first time that the North has fired a ballistic missile while a US aircraft carrier has been present in South Korea. The USS Ronald Reagan arrived in Busan on Sept. 23 and moved to the East Sea for bilateral exercises with the South Korean Navy from Sept. 26 to 29. Afterward, it took part in trilateral anti-submarine warfare drills with Japan on Sept. 30.
While North Korea has long been highly critical of the South Korea-US military drills — which it views as “practice for an invasion” — it would refrain from conducting any kind of military action during the actual joint exercises. In particular, it avoided taking any kind of action whenever US aircraft carriers were in South Korea. This was likely due to concerns of accidental clashes possibly turning into full-blown collisions.
The USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Annapolis, both nuclear-powered vessels that were sent to South Korea this time, are the most powerful and symbolic strategic weapons yet within the US’ extended deterrence framework, which is provided for South Korea in case of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula.
Through its recent missile launches, North Korea has shown the world that it is no longer afraid of “extended deterrence” and can deal with it fully now that it has full-fledged nuclear capabilities backing it up.
Another show of the North’s confidence came on the evening of Sept. 29, when two missiles were fired at 8:48 pm and 8:57 pm. So far, it has been very rare for North Korea to fire missiles at night.
The reason missiles are usually launched on clear, sunny days is to make it easier to observe their trajectory, as well as to prevent any malfunctioning of electronic equipment due to high moisture levels.
The launch on the evening of Sept. 29 can be seen as a message from North Korea signaling the completion of its combat-readiness.
In the missile development stage, a stable test environment is important, which is why most test launches happen during the day. Once the missile program is completed and ready for real combat use, it must be possible for missiles to be launched at any time of day as needed according to various training scenarios.
Besides its test launch on the evening of Sept. 29, North Korea also fired missiles at 6:53 am on Sept. 25 and between 6:10 and 6:20 pm on Sept. 28, showing its ability to launch missiles in the morning, late afternoon, and evening hours.
The missile launch locations also varied over this period. On Sept. 25, the launches were conducted from Taechon, North Pyongan Province. This was followed by Pyongyang Sunan Airfield on Sept. 28 and Sunchon, South Pyongan Province, on Sept. 29. In other words, North Korea showed confidence that it can launch missiles anytime and anywhere.
On the evening of Sept. 29, North Korea fired a missile just before 8:00 am Washington time, which is around the time the US government begins its workday. This missile launch can be seen as a political message from North Korea to the US — meant to show that extended deterrence, as with the use of US aircraft carriers, is useless.
Although North Korea is poking holes in the extended deterrence system, the response from South Korea’s presidential office in the wake of the consecutive missile tests was to reiterate that they had “decided to strengthen extended deterrence implementation capabilities and the [South Korea-US] joint defense posture as agreed upon between the leaders of South Korea and the US.”
In other words, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is trying to strengthen military cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan in the name of countering the North Korean threat.
After the Sept. 30 trilateral anti-submarine warfare drills in the East Sea, multilateral military exercises were set to continue as South Korea’s Marine Corps was scheduled to participate in the 2022 Exercise KAMANDAG in the Philippines from Oct. 3 to 13. South Korea, the US, Japan, and the Philippines were expected to use the opportunity to train together.
This marks the first time that South Korea is participating in the exercise, which is led by the US and the Philippines with the aim of containing China.
By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter
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