North Korea flew 12 warplanes near its border with South Korea on Thursday, prompting the South to scramble 30 military planes in response, officials in Seoul said.
The highly unusual incident came hours after North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the sea in its sixth round of missile tests in less than two weeks.
Eight North Korean fighter jets and four bombers flew in formation and were believed to have conducted air-to-surface firing drills, South Korea’s military said.
The military said South Korea responded by scrambling 30 fighter jets and other warplanes, although they did not engage in any clash with the North Korean aircraft. It refused to provide further details, including how close to the border the North Korean planes flew.
Tensions have risen sharply on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea’s recent barrage of missile tests prompted South Korea, the United States and Japan to conduct joint drills in response.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles toward its eastern waters. The launches came after the United States redeployed an aircraft carrier near the Korean Peninsula in response to North Korea’s launch of a nuclear-capable missile over Japan.
North Korea has carried out a record number of missile tests this year. South Korean officials said the North may further raise tensions by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile or conducting its first nuclear test explosion since 2017, following an old pattern of heightening tensions before trying to wrest outside concessions.
Some experts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is determined to continue with weapons tests aimed at boosting his nuclear arsenal in defiance of international sanctions.
They say North Korea’s goal is to eventually win recognition as a legitimate nuclear state from the US and the lifting of sanctions, though America and its allies have shown no sign of doing so.
The latest missiles were launched 22 minutes apart from North Korea’s capital region and landed between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
The first missile flew 217 miles (350km) and reached a maximum altitude of 50 miles (80km) and the second flew 497 miles (800km) at a maximum altitude of 37 miles (60km).
The flight details were similar to Japanese assessments announced by Defence Minister Yasukazu Hamada, who confirmed that the missiles did not reach Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
He added that the second missile was possibly launched on an “irregular” trajectory, a term that has been used to describe the flight characteristics of a North Korean weapon modelled on Russia’s Iskander missile, which travels at low altitudes and is designed to be manoeuverable in flight to improve its chances of evading missile defences.
US, South Korean and Japanese destroyers launched joint drills off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast later on Thursday to hone their abilities to search, track and intercept North Korean ballistic missiles, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
A US destroyer is part of the strike group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, which returned to the waters in what South Korea’s military called an attempt to demonstrate the allies’ “firm will” to counter North’s continued provocations and threats.
The strike group was in the area last week as part of previous drills between South Korea and the United States, and the allies’ other training involving Japan. North Korea considers such US-led drills near the peninsula as an invasion rehearsal and views training involving an American carrier more provocative.
South Korea’s military said it has also boosted its surveillance posture and maintains readiness in close co-ordination with the United States.
The US Indo Pacific Command said the launches did not pose an immediate threat to the United States or its allies, but still highlighted the “destabilising impact” of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke by phone on Thursday and agreed that North Korea’s recent missile tests are “a serious, grave provocation” that threatens international peace, according to Mr Yoon’s office. Mr Kishida earlier said the North’s continued launches are “absolutely intolerable”.
South Korean Defence Ministry spokesperson Moon Hong Sik said North Korea’s accelerating tests also reflect an urgency to meet Mr Kim’s arms development goals.
Last year the North Korean leader described an extensive wishlist of advanced nuclear weapons systems, including more powerful ICBMs, multiwarhead missiles, underwater-launched nuclear missiles and tactical nuclear arms.
On Tuesday, North Korea staged its most provocative weapons demonstration since 2017, firing an intermediate-range missile over Japan, forcing the Japanese government to issue evacuation alerts and halt trains.
Experts said the weapon was likely a Hwasong-12 missile capable of reaching the US Pacific territory of Guam and beyond.
Other weapons tested in recent days included Iskander-like missiles and other ballistic weapons designed to strike key targets in South Korea, including US military bases there.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the redeployment of the Reagan strike group poses “a serious threat to the stability of the situation on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity”.
The ministry said it strongly condemns US-led efforts at the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions on the North over its recent missile testing, which it described as a “just counteraction” to joint US-South Korean drills.
After the North’s intermediate-range missile launch, the US and South Korea also carried out their own live-fire drills that have so far involved land-to-land ballistic missiles and precision-guided bombs dropped from fighter jets.
But one of the tit-for-tat launches nearly caused catastrophe early on Wednesday when a malfunctioning South Korean Hyumoo-2 missile flipped shortly after lift-off and crashed into the ground at an air force base in the eastern coastal city of Gangneung. South Korea’s military said no-one was hurt.
After Tuesday’s North Korean launch, the US, Britain, France, Albania, Norway and Ireland called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. But the session on Wednesday ended with no consensus, underlining a divide among the council’s permanent members that has deepened over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Russia and China during the meeting insisted to fellow Security Council members that US-led military exercises in the region had provoked North Korea into acting.
The United States and its allies expressed concern that the the council’s inability to reach consensus on North Korea’s record number of missile launches this year was emboldening North Korea and undermining the authority of the United Nations’ most powerful body.
North Korea has fired more than 40 ballistic and cruise missiles over more than 20 launch events this year, using the stalled diplomacy with the United States and Russia’s war on Ukraine as a window to speed up arms development.