N Korea condemns US-S Korea drills, promises ‘merciless’ response

North Korea has released images of its recent spate of missile launches, including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), as it condemned recent military drills between South Korea and the United States as an “open provocation and dangerous war drill” against which it said it had to respond.

A statement from the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army said North Korea would continue to respond to military exercises by South Korea and the US with “sustained, resolute and overwhelming practical military measures”,  the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Monday.

North Korea fired multiple missiles last week, including a possible failed ICBM, cruise missiles and hundreds of artillery shells, as its southern neighbour and the US conducted their Vigilant Storm air drills, which were extended from five days to six in response to Pyongyang’s tests.

The North Korean military said the exercises were an “open provocation aimed at intentionally escalating the tension” and “a dangerous war drill of very high aggressive nature,” according to the KCNA report.

Hundreds of US and South Korean warplanes, including B-1B bombers, took part in Vigilant Storm.

It was the first time B-1Bs have flown to the Korean peninsula since December 2017.

KCNA said the missiles launched included cruise missiles, tactical ballistic missiles and a ‘special functional warhead’ [KCNA via Reuters]

North Korea’s army said it had conducted activities simulating various attacks on air bases and aircraft, as well as a major South Korean city, to “smash the enemies’ persistent war hysteria”, KCNA said. It did not mention whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had overseen the exercises.

The report said North Korea had fired two apparently nuclear-capable “strategic” cruise missiles on November 2 towards the waters off Ulsan, a southeastern coastal city in South Korea; a claim that officials in Seoul said was “untrue” and that no missiles had been tracked near there.

North Korea carried out some 23 launches that day, with one of the missiles landing 26km (16 miles) south of the Northern Limit Line, which serves as an unofficial maritime border between the two Koreas; the first time that has happened since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.

New ICBM or variant?

The operations also included a launch of two “tactical ballistic missiles loaded with dispersion warheads”, a test of a “special functional warhead paralysing the operation command system of the enemy”, and an “all-out combat sortie” involving 500 fighter jets.

Analyst Joseph Dempsey cast doubt on that claim, noting that such a deployment would involve nearly every dedicated combat aircraft in North Korea’s fleet even though many are decades old or not serviceable.

“[The] 500 figure seems exaggerated or at least misleading,” the research associate at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a thread on Twitter.

An official at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Monday that a South Korean ship had recovered debris that was believed to have come from the missile that landed near its waters.

The South Korean Navy rescue vessel used an underwater probe to recover the parts, which are being analysed, the official said.

US-South Korea joint drills usually trigger strong reactions from North Korea, which sees them as rehearsals for an invasion.

Experts say Pyongyang is particularly sensitive about drills such as Vigilant Storm because its air force, which lacks high-tech jets and properly trained pilots, is one of the weakest parts of its military.

While some analysts questioned whether all of the images shared on KCNA were new, others noted that North Korea appeared to have tested either a new type of ICBM or a variant of an existing model.

“It’s not explicit in their statement, but the design doesn’t correspond to one we’ve seen before,” said Ankit Panda, a weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He said the launch shown may have been a developmental platform for evaluating missile subsystems, including possibly a vehicle for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), which allow a single missile to drop nuclear warheads on different targets.

“This is definitely an ICBM-size missile,” Panda said.

North Korea Hwasong-15 missile on a transporter with Kim Jong Un looking on.
Analysts said the images shared on Monday by KCNA suggested there might have been a new nose cone for the Hwasong-15, which was first tested in 2017 [File: KCNA via Reuters]

George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a missile consultant, said the images appeared to show a new nosecone on the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which was first tested in 2017.

The nosecone has a different shape and appears larger than necessary for the 200- to 300-kiloton nuclear device shown in state media and apparently tested in 2017, he said.

Herbert said the shape is more suited for a single large warhead than multiple smaller warheads such as a MIRV.

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