North Korea fires ballistic missile ahead of US-South Korea exercise

North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile on Thursday, the Seoul military said. This is the latest show of force by Pyongyang, just days before South Korea and the United States begin a major joint military exercise.

Relations between the two Koreas are at one of the worst points in decades, with the nuclear-armed North conducting increasingly provocative tests of banned weapons, and Seoul responding by stepping up security cooperation with Washington.

Last year, the Kim Jong-un regime declared North Korea an “irreversible” nuclear power and promised to exponentially increase the production of weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons, as the US looks to move more assets to the region to protect ally Seoul.

The Seoul Joint Chiefs of Staff said it “detected the launch of a single short-range ballistic missile from the western port city of Nampo at 1820 (0920 GMT)”.

“Our military maintains a state of full readiness, working closely with the United States, as we have increased surveillance and vigilance,” the department added.

North Korea has long claimed that its nuclear weapons and missile programs are for self-defense and has resented US-South Korean military exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion.

Earlier this week, North Korea accused the US of “deliberately” escalating tensions, and Kim’s influential sister warned that if the US intercepted one of Pyongyang’s missile tests, it would be seen as a “blatant declaration of war.”

“Shield of Freedom”

After talks between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump failed in 2019, diplomacy stalled and the North doubled down on military development.

South Korea’s hawkish President Yoon Suk-yeol has taken steps to strengthen diplomatic ties and security cooperation with Tokyo and Washington in response to growing threats from Pyongyang.

US President Joe Biden will receive Yun for a state visit on April 26, while the South Korean leader will also visit Tokyo next week, his office said.

This month, the US and South Korean military will hold the largest joint military exercise in five years.

Ahead of this “Freedom Shield” exercise, which will last at least 10 days starting March 13, the allies conducted aerial exercises this week with the participation of a US nuclear-capable B-52 heavy bomber.

“This is probably just the beginning of a series of provocative tests by North Korea,” said Leif-Erik Isley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“Pyongyang is ready to respond aggressively to major US-South Korean defense exercises, as well as President Yong’s upcoming meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and US President Joe Biden,” he said.

“The Kim regime could order longer-range missiles, try to launch a spy satellite, demonstrate a solid-propellant engine, and possibly even conduct nuclear tests.”

North Korea presented its missile tests and military exercises as justified countermeasures after US and South Korean exercises.

Last week, she called on the United Nations to stop those exercises and reiterated that her nuclear weapons ensured the balance of power in the region.