Korea Fires Ballistic Missiles As Blinken Visits Seoul

North Korea launched several short-range ballistic missiles on Monday, observers say, in a planned bid to draw attention as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits South Korea for talks.

Blinken is in Seoul for the third Democracy Summit, where he met with President Yoon Suk Yeol early Monday. He is also meeting with his South Korean counterpart on the sidelines of the event, where discussions are expected to focus on the allies’ efforts to confront threats from the nuclear-armed North.

Washington and Seoul completed one of their major annual joint military training exercises last week, triggering heated retorts and live-fire drills from nuclear-armed Pyongyang, which views all such operations as invasion rehearsals.

Seoul’s military said it detected the launch of “multiple short-range ballistic missiles” early Monday, which flew around 300 kilometers (186 miles) before landing in the East Sea, often known as the Sea of Japan.

“We are closely sharing relevant information with the United States and Japan and are at full readiness,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated.

After meeting Yoon, Blinken “condemned the…launch of ballistic missiles by the DPRK and reaffirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the ROK’s security,” according to Spokesperson Matthew Miller.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s senior government spokesperson, stated that the North fired three short-range ballistic missiles that landed outside of the country’s exclusive economic zone and caused no harm.

The launches came only days after Seoul and Washington’s annual Freedom Shield drills, which this year included twice as many troops, concluded on Thursday.

Pyongyang warned last month that Seoul and Washington would pay a “dear price” for the drills, and later declared that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had commanded an artillery unit capable of striking Seoul.

“It’s a highly calculated move by Pyongyang to fire multiple missiles to demonstrate their capability even when the top US diplomat is in town,” Sangji University military studies professor Choi Gi-il told AFP.

According to Han Kwon-hee of the Korea Association of Defense Industry Studies, North Korea often launches missiles “as a tit-for-tat” following joint drills between the United States and South Korea.

Blinken’s presence, he added, only increases their drive since it “means more attention from Washington and adds pressure on host Seoul.”

Boosting deterrence

The North’s ballistic missile test on Monday is its second this year, following a launch on January 14 with a manoeuvrable hypersonic warhead.

Blinken arrived in South Korea on Sunday afternoon ahead of the democracy summit, which will take place from March 18 to 20 and will bring together government officials, non-governmental organizations, and civil society activists.

Seoul is one of Washington’s most important regional allies, and the US has stationed some 27,000 soldiers in the South to assist safeguard it from the nuclear-armed North.

To better counter Pyongyang’s threats, conservative President Yoon has strengthened ties with Washington and attempted to bury the historical hatchet with former colonial power Japan.

Pyongyang has labeled South Korea its “principal enemy” this year, shut down reunification and outreach agencies, and warned war over “even 0.001 mm” of territorial incursion.

“While South Korea conducted defense training with international partners last week, Kim Jong-un personally supervised several military exercises, and now that Seoul is hosting a democracies summit, North Korea fires more missiles,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“The Kim regime’s one-upmanship aims to show strength to its domestic audience, suggest costs on the Korean Peninsula for Seoul’s international security cooperation, and warn Washington against increasing pressure on Pyongyang.”

Blinken also met with South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul to discuss strengthening the alliance, as Washington and Seoul seek to reinforce their “extended deterrence” against North Korea.

After Seoul, Blinken travels to the Philippines.

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