North Korea fired its first two strategic cruise missiles from a submarine on Sunday, the eve of the largest joint exercises between the United States and South Korea in five years.
State media said the launch tested the underwater offensive operations of submarine units, which are part of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent. The term “strategic” is usually used to describe weapons that have a nuclear capability.
The cruise missiles were reportedly fired from the submarine “8.24 Yongung” into the water off Korea’s east coast in the early hours of Sunday before traveling some 932 miles before hitting a target in the sea.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered his military to step up exercises to deter and respond to a “real war” if necessary.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said the military was on high alert as the country stepped down from 11-day “Freedom Shield” and “Warrior Shield” exercises with the US military to boost their joint defense capabilities.
The largest joint South Korea-US military exercises in five years come at a time of escalating tensions with Kim Jong-un’s regime, which has tested an unprecedented array of missiles over the past year, and regional uncertainties about China’s territorial ambitions.
Defense officials say the exercises will reflect “realistic” scenarios for responding to the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, as well as learning lessons from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Test mountain huts
As part of the simulated war games, senior South Korean and US defense officials and military commanders will this week descend into nuclear bunkers hidden deep in the mountains of the Korean peninsula.
Overground Army battalions and Air Force pilots will also test their battlefield readiness and ability to cooperate in the defense of South Korea against a hypothetical attack.
The training would be conducted in wartime positions and locations, said retired Lieutenant General Chun In-bum, who estimated he had participated in nearly 100 joint exercises during his 35 years of service in the South Korean military.
For senior military planners and strategists, this means barely seeing the light of day, dining out on military MREs (ready-to-eat meals) while sitting in the depths of the earth in command centers designed to survive nuclear bomb blasts.
South Korea has built a network of underground mountain shelters to protect its military command structure in times of crisis.
The most famous, codenamed “Command Post Tango,” is a granite complex in northern Gyeonggi province that is said to have multiple layers of blast doors and high-tech communications equipment connecting it to major U.S. bases around the world.
Lieutenant General Chun said that the temperature in the bunkers was controlled mechanically and naturally. “You can imagine why frogs and snakes don’t freeze to death in winter,” he said.
“[The bunker is] decompressed so that it is protected against chemical warfare and can operate completely on its own, meaning that people can sleep, eat and defecate in it.”
The main purpose of the exercises is “to maintain proficiency and train the commanders and staff during a wartime mission,” he said, adding that lessons would be learned from the conflict in Ukraine, including logistical, tactical use of weapons and cyber attacks.
Joint exercises on the Korean peninsula were massively scaled back during the pandemic and also under the latest government in an effort to maintain a relaxation with Pyongyang, which collapsed in 2019.
The resumption of the exercise has enraged Pyongyang, which has likened the exercises to an act of war.
US and South Korean troops have insisted that the training be defensive in nature.
Lieutenant General Chun predicted that North Korea could resort to the “old tactic” of using the exercises as a pretext to test missiles.
“It is a disgrace that the North Koreans use this as an excuse to carry out these provocations and mislead their own people as to why they have to sacrifice their human happiness for a non-existent threat,” he said.
No homicide policy
During his participation in dozens of exercises, “not once did I try to kill the Kim leadership, kill them, nor make the first strike, not once. We don’t,” he said.
Dr Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based lecturer in international relations at Troy University in Alabama, said the conventional weapons deployed by the US would send an important signal to Pyongyang.
He said North Korea was unlikely to respond to the exercises in a “deadly and seriously escalating” manner.
“In fact, it would be the wrong time to do it. You have a big drill and everyone is on alert. If you have troops in training mode, they’re in the best position to attack you,” he said.
“I don’t run forward or punch Mike Tyson in the face when he’s in position and his fist is clenched.”