OSAN AIR BASE, SOUTH KOREA — Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter on Thursday condemned the North Korean government’s decision to conduct a missile launch ahead of his inaugural visit to South Korea, calling it a sign of the threat that nuclear-armed North Korea continues to pose to the region.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry reported that North Korea fired two short-range, surface-to-surface missiles into waters off its west coast Tuesday, two days before Carter landed in Seoul for his first visit as U.S. defense secretary, and as South Korean and U.S. forces conduct annual defense exercises.
“It’s a reminder of how dangerous things are on the Korean Peninsula and how a highly ready force in support of a very strong ally . . . is necessary to keep the peace out there,” he told reporters at a U.S. military base outside Tokyo, just before boarding a flight to South Korea’s capital.
Carter is using his visit to Asia to reassure close allies about future American military support, despite cuts to defense spending, polarization in Congress, and crises in Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere that have raised concerns among U.S. partners.
Officials said discussions in Seoul will center on the concerns shared by South Korea and the United States about nuclear work and missile activities in North Korea, which has conducted three nuclear test blasts since 2006. During his visit, Carter will visit the wreck of a South Korean patrol vessel that Seoul and Washington accuse North Korea of sinking in 2010. Pyongyang denies the accusation.
Carter’s visit also comes as the United States takes steps to modernize its decades-old military presence in South Korea, which hosts more than 28,000 U.S. troops.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said the missile launches, which are not unusual, were a provocative move by North Korea. Pyongyang said it would suspend nuclear tests if the United States and South Korea canceled their annual exercises. They did not do so.
Prior to another recent missile launch, North Korea’s government called the exercises “unpardonable war hysteria.”
This week’s launch may have been a rite of passage for Carter, who became the top Pentagon official in February.
“If it was a welcoming message to me, I’m flattered,” he joked.