North Korea test-fired two strategic cruise missiles from a submarine for the first time on Sunday, the eve of the largest joint drills between the United States and South Korea in five years.
State media said the launch tested the underwater offensive operations of submarine units that form part of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. The term “strategic” is typically used to describe weapons that have a nuclear capability.
The cruise missiles were reportedly fired from the “8.24 Yongung” submarine in the water off the east coast of Korea in the early hours of Sunday before travelling some 932 miles before hitting a target in the sea.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his military to intensify drills to deter and respond to a “real war” if necessary.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the military was on high alert as the country kicks of the 11-day “Freedom Shield” and “Warrior Shield” exercises with the US military to boost their joint defence capabilities.
The largest joint South Korean and US military drills in five years come at a time of escalating tensions with Kim Jong-un’s regime, which has tested an unprecedented volley of missiles in the past year, and regional uncertainties over China’s territorial ambitions.
Defence officials say the drills will reflect “realistic” scenarios to respond to the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, as well as drawing lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Testing mountain hideouts
As part of the simulated war games, senior South Korean and US defence officials and military commanders will descend this week into nuclear bunkers hidden deep in the mountains of the Korean peninsula.
Above ground army battalions and Air Force pilots will also test their battlefield readiness and ability to work together in defending South Korea from a hypothetical attack.
The training would be executed in wartime positions and locations, said retired Lt Gen. Chun In-bum, who estimated he had participated in close to 100 joint drills during his 35 years of service in the South Korean military.
For senior military planners and strategists this means barely seeing the light of day and dining out on army MREs (meals ready-to-eat) while hunkered in the depths of the earth in command centres designed to survive nuclear bomb blasts.
South Korea has a network of subterranean mountain hideouts, built to protect the military command structure in times of crisis.
The most well-known, codenamed “Command Post Tango”, is a granite complex in northern Gyeonggi province that reportedly has multiple layers of blast doors and high-tech communications equipment linking it to major US bases around the world.
Lt Gen Chun said the temperature in the bunkers was controlled mechanically and naturally. “You are able to realise why frogs and snakes don’t freeze to death in the winter,” he said.
“[The bunker is] decompressed so that it’s protected for chemical warfare, and it can fully operate on its own, which means people can sleep, eat and shit there.”
The main goal of the exercises is “to maintain proficiency and train the commanders and staff under a wartime mission”, he said, adding that lessons would be learned from the Ukraine conflict, including logistics, tactical uses of weapons and cyber-attacks.
Joint exercises on the Korean Peninsula were massively scaled back during the pandemic and also under the last administration in an effort to maintain a détente with Pyongyang that collapsed in 2019.
The resumption of the exercise has infuriated Pyongyang, which has likened the drills to an act of war.
US and South Korean forces have insisted the training is defensive in nature.
Lt Gen Chun predicted North Korea could resort to the “old tactic” of using the exercises as a pretext to test missiles.
“It’s a shame that the North Koreans are using this as an excuse to conduct these provocations and to dupe their own population as to why they need to sacrifice their human happiness for a non-existent threat,” he said.
No policy of assassination
During his participation in scores of drills “not a single time have I tried to kill the Kim leadership, assassinate them, nor strike the first strike, not a single time. We don’t do that”, he said.
Dr Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based lecturer in international relations with Alabama’s Troy University, said the conventional weapons deployed by the US would send an important signal to Pyongyang.
He said it was unlikely North Korea would respond to the drills in a “lethal and seriously escalatory” way.
“In fact, it would be the wrong time to do it. You have a big exercise, and everybody is on alert. When you have troops in training mode that’s when they are in prime position to strike at you,” he said.
“I don’t walk up and strike Mike Tyson in the face when he is standing in position and he has his fist clenched.”
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