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North Korea defends missile tests, slams U.S. over military exercises

The USS Ronald Reagan, top right, participates with other U.S. and South Korean navy ships during joint exercises off South Korea's eastern coast on Sept. 29, 2022. (AP)

TOKYO — North Korea on Thursday condemned military drills by the United States and its allies in the region as a “serious threat to the stability” of the Korean Peninsula, suggesting its latest missile launches were in response to the exercises.

Speaking for the first time since the country began its most recent round of weapons tests late last month, the North Korean Foreign Ministry denounced the United States for “unwarrantedly” referring Pyongyang’s ballistic missile launches to the United Nations Security Council. It defended its actions as “just counteraction measures” against the exercises.

The United States, South Korea and Japan since August have been conducting military maneuvers to demonstrate their readiness to work together in the event of a conflict with the North. While the allies say the drills are defensive in nature, Kim Jong Un’s regime has long viewed them as hostile acts and used them to justify its weapons development and nuclear program.

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“North Korea’s consistent and persistent claims that its missile launches are in response to joint U.S.-R.O.K. drills is part of North Korea’s long running strategy of establishing equivalence between their illicit provocations and U.S.-R.O.K. joint military exercises,” said Go Myong-hyun, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, using an abbreviation for South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.

Go added that the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s statement Thursday “echoes precisely the talking points intended to inculcate the perception that the drills and provocations are equivalent, when in fact they are not.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said North Korea’s missile launches “absolutely cannot be tolerated.”

“This is the sixth time in the short period, just counting the ones from the end of September,” Kishida said Thursday.

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China’s Ambassador to the U.N., Geng Shuang, told the Security Council on Wednesday evening local time that North Korea’s tests “did not exist in isolation” but were rather a response to U.S. military activity in the region.

The U.N. response should not merely be about pressuring Pyongyang, Geng said, adding that U.S. deployment of military assets was to blame for “creating tension” and the idea that North Korea’s launches were because of Security Council inaction was “totally incorrect.”

There has been a flurry of activity this week between the allies’ drills and North Korean ballistic missile tests, which violate U.N. Security Council resolutions. The reciprocal actions point to rising tensions as the United States, South Korea and Japan work more closely together to guard against North Korea’s nuclear and weapons development.

With a new South Korean conservative president who is taking a harder line toward the North, U.S. and South Korean militaries resumed drills this summer for the first time in five years.

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North Korea’s recent rounds of tests began on Sept. 24 as the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan arrived in South Korea to participate in the exercises.

On Tuesday, as drills involving the American carrier wrapped up, North Korea test-fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan for the first time since 2017. In response, the United States, South Korea and Japan conducted air, sea and land drills, including rare missile exercises by the U.S. and South Korean militaries and deploying the Reagan back out to the waters east of North Korea.

On Thursday, North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast. In its statement, North Korea said it is watching U.S. actions in the region, specifically the repositioning of the aircraft carrier.

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo and Christian Shepherd in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.