SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired several cruise missiles toward its western sea on Saturday, the South Korean military said, marking the second launch this week, apparently to protest the docking of a nuclear-armed U.S. submarine in South Korea.
While adding to its barrage of missile launches in recent months, North Korea remained publicly silent for a fifth day on the fate of a US soldier who rushed north across the heavily armed Korean border this week.
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South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the launches were detected starting around 4 a.m., but did not immediately report the number of missiles fired or the distance traveled. He said the US and South Korean military were closely analyzing the launches.
In recent years, North Korea has tested newly developed cruise missiles that it calls “strategic,” implying an intention to arm them with nuclear weapons. Experts say the primary mission of these weapons would include striking naval assets and ports. Designed to fly like small planes and travel through landscapes that would make them harder to detect by radar, cruise missiles are part of a growing collection of North Korean weapons aimed at crushing missile defenses in the South.
On Wednesday, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles from an area near its capital, Pyongyang. They traveled about 550 kilometers (340 miles) before landing in waters east of the Korean Peninsula.
The missile’s flight distance roughly matched the distance between Pyongyang and the South Korean port city of Busan, where the USS Kentucky on Tuesday made the first visit by a US nuclear submarine to South Korea since the 1980s.
Also on Tuesday, U.S. Private Pvt. Travis King sprinted across the border into North Korea while visiting an inter-Korean truce village.
North Korean state media has yet to comment on King, and the country has not responded to requests from the United States to clarify where he is being held and what his condition is. US officials have expressed concern for King’s well-being, given North Korea’s brutal treatment of some US detainees. It could be weeks or even months before North Korea releases meaningful information about King, analysts say, as the country could extend his detention to maximize leverage and add urgency to U.S. efforts to secure his release.
Some experts say the North may try to use King for propaganda purposes or as a bargaining chip to extract political and security concessions from Washington, possibly linking his release to the United States reducing its military activities with South Korea.
“With so many moving parts, it’s important not to attribute causation to a simple correlation of events. But North Korea’s missile provocations do not bode well for an easy negotiation to secure Travis King’s release,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at South Korea’s Ewha University. “Unauthorized border crossings endanger personnel, risk political and even military incident, and can be exploited by North Korean hostage diplomacy.”
The United States and South Korea expanded their combined military exercises and agreed to increase the regional deployment of strategic U.S. assets like bombers, aircraft carriers and submarines in a show of force against North Korea, which has tested around 100 missiles since the start of 2022.
The allies have also launched new rounds of nuclear contingency planning meetings that are aimed in part at allaying South Korean public fears about the North’s growing nuclear threat and silencing voices at home that it should pursue its own deterrence.
North Korea’s defense minister issued a veiled threat on Thursday suggesting that Kentucky’s docking in South Korea could be grounds for a nuclear attack by the North. North Korea has used such rhetoric before, but the comments underscored how strained relations are now.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Friday called Kentucky’s deployment and nuclear contingency planning meetings between Washington and Seoul “defensive response measures” to counter the North Korean threat. The ministry said in a statement that it “strongly warns” that any nuclear attack by the North against the allies would be met with an “immediate, overwhelming and decisive response…that would put an end to the North Korean regime.”