Echoing a report from earlier this week, when on Wednesday the Seoul-based Asia Business Daily reported that North Korea is preparing to fire multiple short-range rockets around the opening of the Chinese Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress on Oct. 18 - arguably the year's most important geopolitical event - on Saturday the South Korean press claimed that "North Korea is believed to be preparing to launch a ballistic missile ahead of an upcoming joint naval drill by the US and South Korea", according to a government source.
The Donga Ilbo daily said satellite pictures show ballistic missiles mounted on "transporter erector vehicles" and being moved out of hangars near Pyongyang and in the North Phyongan Province. US and South Korean military officials suspect the North might be preparing to launch missiles capable of reaching US territory, the newspaper said.
A defence ministry spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying: "we don't comment on any matters of military intelligence" but added that "we are keeping a close watch over the North."
Quoted by AFP, Donga Ilbo said that US and South Korean military officials suspect the North might be preparing to launch missiles capable of reaching US territory, and that this could be the Hwasong-14 inter-continental ballistic missile, whose range could extend to Alaska, or Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missiles which Pyongyang threatened to fire towards the US Pacific territory of Guam in Augus . Another possibility is that the North might be preparing to test a new Hwasong-13 ICBM, it added, that has a longer maximum range than the other two missiles and could potentially reach the US West Coast.
On Friday, the US navy said that a US aircraft carrier will lead a joint naval drill between the US and South Korea in the coming week. The drills, led by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, are scheduled to begin on Monday in waters east and west of South Korea. The 10-day exercise, which will include the USS Stethem and USS Mustin Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, will check the allies’ “communications, interoperability and partnership,” the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.
The training mission comes after hectic US military hardware movements around the Korean peninsula in recent days. These follow a flurry of missiles from Pyongyang, which conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last month in defiance of international sanctions. Also on Friday the nuclear-powered USS Michigan submarine arrived at the southern South Korean port of Busan, just days after another nuclear-powered submarine - the USS Tuscon - left after a five day visit.
The drill will also be the latest show of force against North Korea, as tensions soar over the hermit state's weapons programme, and will likely rile Pyongyang which has previously responded angrily to joint exercises.
Indeed, as the two nations prepare for next week’s joint naval exercise, North Korean officials on Friday renewed their threat to launch ballistic missiles near Guam. An op-ed published by Pyongyang’s KCNA state news agency said: “We have already warned several times that we will take counteractions for self-defense including a salvo of missiles into waters near the US territory of Guam, an advance base for invading the DPRK, where key US bases are located.”
“The US military action hardens our determination that the US should be tamed with fire and lets us take our hand closer to ‘trigger’ for taking the toughest countermeasure,” Kim Kwang Hak, a researcher at the Institute for American Studies of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said in the op-ed.
KCNA’s statement also came on the heels of a flyby of two US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula in a show of force on Tuesday night. Two B-1Bs took off from Guam and traveled in the vicinity of the Sea of Japan, staging an aerial exercise with Japanese and South Korean combat aircraft in the middle of the night.
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In any event, local experts are concerned. On Friday, a researcher at the Institute for American Studies at the North Korean Foreign Ministry warned that the joint exercise, as well as a flight by two American B-1B bombers over South Korea on Tuesday, would compel the North to “take military counteraction.” Additionally, professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies said it was "highly likely" that the North could launch missiles in response to next week's joint navy drill.
President Trump's continued threats of military action against Pyongyang if it does not tame its weapons ambitions have fuelled fears of conflict on the Korean peninsula. But military intervention against North Korea would have "devastating consequences", NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg warned Friday, after Trump said diplomatic efforts had failed.