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Likely reaction to U.S.-ROK drills

By Kentaro Nakajima / Yomiuri Shimbun CorrespondentSEOUL — North Korea fired ballistic missiles on Monday with the apparent intention of sending a strong message of caution over the ongoing annual joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea.

This year’s exercises, which kicked off Wednesday and are scheduled to run until the end of April, are the largest in size, with the nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson planned to be deployed to waters around South Korea in mid-March. Pyongyang apparently wanted to display a confrontational posture to Washington and Seoul before U.S. and South Korean forces start full-scale drills with advanced weapons.

U.S. and South Korean forces are stepping up efforts to identify the missile types launched based on such data as distance traveled and angle of trajectory. They are also analyzing the North’s intention to have the missiles fall in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

On Sept. 5 last year, North Korea fired three ballistic missiles from mobile launchpads almost simultaneously, with all landing nearly at the same point. With four missiles having been fired simultaneously this time, Pyongyang might have aimed to demonstrate a high level of accuracy with its missiles.

Referring to the North’s intention in the latest missile launches, South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesperson said at a press conference on Monday that Seoul believes that Pyongyang carried them out in accordance with a preexisting ballistic missile development and firing plan. The spokesperson added that the North intends to undermine the legitimacy of the drills by conducting the missile launches while the drills are under way.

In response to a series of recent provocations by North Korea, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and South Korean National Defense Minister Han Min Koo had agreed to conduct the largest-ever drills this year.

In addition to the Carl Vinson, the F-35 stealth fighter jets, the most advanced military aircraft, which were deployed for U.S. forces stationed in Japan in January, are scheduled to take part in the drills for the first time. The F-35 is capable of carrying out precision strikes without being detected by North Korea’s air defense network.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for North Korea’s General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said that the North Korean military would show an ultra-hard response against the start of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and that it would continue to strengthen its defense and preemptive attack capability, which center on nuclear arms, unless the two countries called off the drills.

Meanwhile, China announced on Feb. 18 that it would suspend imports of coal from North Korea for the rest of the year as part of U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang. North Korea’s coal exports account for one-third of its total exports by value. The North may be strongly reacting against moves to surround it.Speech

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