North Korean Missile Crossed Over Maritime Border For First Time
Pyongyang’s latest missile barrage follows joint U.S.-South Korean maneuvers and saw the most missiles fired by the North in a single day.
For the first time since the end of the Korean War, North Korea has fired a ballistic missile across the de-facto maritime border with South Korea, part of a barrage of nearly two-dozen missiles and more than 100 artillery shells launched Wednesday by Pyongyang. In response, fighter jets from the Republic of Korea (ROK) Air Force launched air-to-surface missiles, in the latest round of a tit-for-tat campaign of weapons launching displays involving the two countries.
The North Korean missile barrage began on Wednesday morning, local time, and involved launches from locations on its eastern and western coasts. What’s unusual about Pyonyang's latest launches is the scale, with a reported 23 missiles fired over a period of more than 10 hours. This is the most ever fired in a single day.
Also highly significant is the fact that one of the North Korean missiles came down in waters further south than ever before, according to Seoul’s account. This missile impacted less than 37 miles off the South Korean coast.
“The North Korean missile launch is very unusual and unacceptable as it fell close to South Korean territorial waters south of the Northern Limit Line for the first time” since the peninsula was divided, Kang Shin-chul, director of operations for the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
The Northern Limit Line, or NLL, is a disputed inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea, which serves as the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea.
According to the South Korean Yonhap news agency, 1984 was the last time that North Korea launched “a major missile southward in a direct threat to South Korea.” Since then, however, Pyongyang has fired multiple missiles into the East Sea and the Yellow Sea.
Today’s missile barrage began with the launch of four short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) into the Yellow Sea at 6:51 AM local time.
Next, at around 8:51 AM local time, three more SRBMs were fired off North Korea’s eastern coast, from a location close to the coastal city of Wonsan. These triggered a rare air raid warning being issued on the remote South Korean island of Ulleung, near Dokdo. These launches were also confirmed by the Japan Coast Guard.
The ROK’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said that these three missiles fell 16 miles south of the Northern Limit Line; 35 miles from the South Korean city of Sokcho, on the east coast; and into international waters 104 miles from Ulleung.
This was just the beginning, however, and starting at 9:12 AM, Pyongyang launched more than 10 more missiles off its east and west coasts. According to the Yonhap news agency, these likely included both SRBMs and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
Another six missiles, again a reported mix of SRBMs and SAMs, were fired between 4:30 and 5:10 PM, the missiles coming down it in the East and Yellow Seas.
The exact types of missiles used by North Korea have yet to be determined, although there has also been speculation that rocket artillery may have also been involved.
As well as missiles, the ROK Armed Forces also said it had identified more than 100 artillery shells fired from the Kosong County, in North Korea’s Kangwon Province. These landed in the eastern maritime buffer zone, north of the NLL, at around 1:27 PM. The buffer zone was established under a 2018 agreement between the two countries intended to help reduce tensions.
“Our military can never tolerate North Korea’s provocative act and will sternly respond to it in close cooperation with the U.S.,” the JCS said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government took to Twitter to issue the following statement:
“A threat to peace and stability. We strongly condemn North Korea’s provocations. The missile launch violated the East Sea NLL. It is an unprecedented military provocation. Acts that seriously threaten peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. All responsibility for the escalation lies with North Korea. The government remains fully prepared. We will also prepare for the possibility of further taunts.”
The South Korean military response involved firing missiles over the maritime border between the two countries. As was the case in a previous round of missile launches last month, Seoul employed ROKAF F-15K and F-16 fighter jets, which reportedly fired three AGM-84H Standoff Land Attack Missiles – Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) into the sea on the opposite side of the Northern Limit Line.
“Our military’s response reaffirms our resolve to sternly respond to any provocations and shows that we are capable of accurately striking our enemy,” the JCS said after the SLAM missiles were fired.
According to the JCS, the SLAMs landed north of the NLL at a distance almost equivalent to that of the North’s SRBM that came down south of that same border.
Some air routes along the east coast of South Korea were closed to commercial aircraft, the transport ministry said.
Condemning the North Korean missile launches as a de facto violation of the South’s territory, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol convened an emergency meeting of the country’s National Security Council.
Meanwhile, Japanese Minister of Defense Yasukazu Hamada said: “North Korea has recently launched ballistic missiles in rapid succession and has unilaterally escalated its persistent provocations. North Korea’s actions threaten the peace and security of our country, the region, and the international community, and are absolutely unacceptable.”
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command slammed Pyongyang’s missile launches as “reckless behavior” and “destabilizing,” also pointing to the North’s continued work on “unlawful ballistic missile programs.”
“The U.S. commitments to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remain ironclad,” the command added in a statement.
In Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, “We believe that all parties to this conflict should avoid any steps that could further escalate tensions. The situation is already very tense on the peninsula.”
The North Korean missile launches came only hours after a demand from Pyongyang that the United States and South Korea put a stop to large-scale military exercises, with a statement that “military rashness and provocation can be no longer tolerated.”
That demand seems certain to have been referring to Vigilant Storm, a joint U.S. and South Korean exercise involving around 240 aircraft and thousands of soldiers from both countries. This five-day drill kicked off on Monday and is the first of its scale to have been conducted for five years after President Donald Trump dramatically scaled back such joint maneuvers, which he described as “provocative” and “tremendously expensive.”
On Tuesday, Pyongyang’s anger at the drills saw Pak Jong Chon, a secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, describe them as “aggressive and provocative.” North Korean officials also warned Washington and Seoul of “more powerful follow-up measures.” The North now seems to have made good on that promise.
The North has repeatedly claimed that exercises like Vigilant Storm are about preparing for an invasion from the South. While U.S. and South Korean officials emphatically deny this, the latest Vigilant Storm does reportedly include mock airstrikes, performed round the clock, including by F-35 fighter jets. These advanced stealth assets would, of course, likely be at the forefront of any war between North and South.
On Monday, the Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Key West (SSN-722) also arrived in South Korea for a “scheduled visit” as part of its deployment to the Indo-Pacific region. That, too, is likely to have angered the leadership in Pyongyang.
North Korea, too, has conducted large-scale exercises recently. In early October, Yonhap reported that a formation of at least 12 North Korean warplanes “presumably conducted [an air-to-ground] firing exercise,” including aerial activity “north of the inter-Korean air boundary.” In response, an unusually large number of ROKAF fighter jets were scrambled. At around the same time, the ROKAF flew its own high-profile air-to-ground exercises, including in response to a previous round of missile tests by Pyongyang. You can read more about the whole incident here.
All in all, 2022 has seen North Korea test-fire an unprecedented number of missiles, typically accompanied by statements warning against U.S.-South Korean joint exercises. Last Friday, too, a pair of SRBMs was launched.
The total launches for the year now include at least 48 ballistic missiles alone.
Another factor in the background is the prospect of another North Korean nuclear test, something that Western officials have voiced recent concerns about. North Korea’s last previous nuclear test was in 2017.
Overall, the latest missile tests come at a very inopportune time, in terms of international politics. In fact, that might also be another factor behind Pyongyang’s latest missile barrage. With the United States having to deal with the crisis in Ukraine and escalating tensions with China, as well as mid-term elections, North Korea both wants attention but also potentially sees an opportunity to catch Washington off its guard.
Whether there is another nuclear test on the horizon or not, the latest round of North Korean missile launches appears to be the most extensive of their kind within the last decade. Once again, they come as a reminder of the tensions on the peninsula and the potential for a wider conflict, whether by accident or design.
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