All posts by KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press

S. Korea conducts cruise missile drill amid N. Korea threats

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea said Wednesday it had conducted its first live-fire drill for an advanced air-launched cruise missile that would strengthen its pre-emptive strike capability against North Korea in the event of crisis. South Korea’s military said the Taurus missile fired from an F-15 fighter jet traveled through obstacles at low altitudes before hitting a target off the country’s western coast during drills Tuesday. The missile, manufactured by Germany’s Taurus Systems, has a maximum range of 500 kilometers (310 miles) and is equipped with stealth characteristics that will allow it to avoid radar detection before hitting North Korean targets, according to Seoul’s Defense Ministry. South Korea has been accelerating efforts to ramp up its military capabilities in face of a torrent of nuclear weapons tests by North Korea, which on Sept. 3 conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test to date. Shortly after the nuke test, Seoul announced it reached an agreement with Washington to remove the warhead weight limits on South Korean ballistic missiles, which under a bilateral guideline could be built for a maximum range of 800 kilometers (497 miles). A pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang’s leadership would be difficult to undertake, but it’s widely seen as the most realistic of the limited military options Seoul has to deny a nuclear attack from its rival. The North said its latest nuclear test was a detonation of a thermonuclear weapon built for its developmental intercontinental ballistic missiles that were flight tested twice in July. The country is also developing solid-fuel missiles that could be fired from land mobile launchers or submarines. It flew a powerful new midrange missile over northern Japan last month while declaring more missile tests targeting the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, South Korea said it found a small amount of radioactivity in air samples collected days after the North’s test. The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission said the discovery of the xenon-133 isotope is linked to the recent test but it couldn’t verify exactly what kind of bomb was detonated because several other isotopes that typically accompany a nuclear explosion were not found. Those isotopes could show if the bomb tested on Sept. 3 was a plutonium or uranium device, according to the South Korean agency. It said it also hasn’t found traces of tritium, which accompany a test of a thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb. North Korea did a poor job obscuring its first nuclear test in 2006, when xenon and krypton isotopes detected in the atmosphere allowed scientists to conclude that the country had used a plutonium-fueled device. The country has since improved the design of its nuclear tests to make radioactivity less detectable from a distance.
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Putin urges North Korea talks, says sanctions not working

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — While condemning North Korea over its latest nuclear test, the leaders of Russia and South Korea seemed far apart on the issue of stepping up sanctions against the country after a meeting Wednesday in the Russian port city of Vladivostok. Speaking after the meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for talks with North Korea, saying sanctions are not a solution to the country’s nuclear and missile development. Moon had urged Moscow to support stronger sanctions against North Korea, which conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sunday in what it claimed was a detonation of a thermonuclear weapon built for missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. “We should not give in to emotions and push Pyongyang into a corner,” Putin said in a news conference after the meeting, held on the sidelines of a conference on economic development of Russia’s Far East. “As never before everyone should show restraint and refrain from steps leading to escalation and tensions.” Moon said the leaders agreed that reducing regional tension and “quickly solving” the security challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile program were critical. Ahead of his meeting with Putin, Moon said the situation could get out of hand if North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests aren’t stopped. Moon urged Russia to back stronger sanctions including the cutting off oil supplies, but Putin expressed concern that such moves would hurt regular North Koreans, said Yoon Young-chan, Moon’s chief press secretary. “Myself and President Putin share a view that North Korea has gone the wrong way with its nuclear and missile program and that easing tension on the Korean Peninsula is an urgent issue,” Moon said during the news conference. He complimented Putin and the Russian government over what he said were a variety of efforts to find diplomatic solutions to the North Korean problem. In a telephone conversation with Putin on Monday before his trip to Russia, Moon also called for a ban on overseas North Korean workers, who are seen as a key foreign currency source for the North. Putin told Moon that the North Korean problem should be solved diplomatically, according to Seoul’s presidential office. Moon, a liberal who took office in May, had initially showed a preference for a diplomatic approach on North Korea, but his government has since taken a harder stance as the North continued its torrid pace in weapons tests. In an interview with the Russian news agency TASS on Tuesday, Moon said he believes now is not the time for talks and that it is important for the international community to strengthen pressure against North Korea. Seoul’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday said the U.S. military will begin adding more launchers to a contentious high-tech U.S. missile defense system in South Korea on Thursday to better cope with North Korean threats. The deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system has angered not only North Korea, but also China and Russia, which see the system’s powerful radars as a security threat. A THAAD battery normally consists of six launchers that can fire up to 48 interceptor missiles, but only two launchers have been operational so far at the site in rural Seongju. Putin, speaking in China on Tuesday, condemned North Korea’s nuclear test as provocative, but said Russia views sanctions as “useless and ineffective.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will meet Putin in Vladivostok on Thursday, said before his departure from Japan that “we must make North Korea understand there is no bright future for the country if it pursues the current path.” Moon and Abe are also expected to meet in Vladivostok on Thursday.
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SKorea scrambles to improve weapons following NKorean test

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office four months ago with plans to reach out to North Korea in a way his conservative predecessors did not in the previous decade. Two ICBM launches and one nuclear test later, his government is ramping up its defenses, with some officials even considering asking the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons a generation after their removal from the Korean Peninsula.

Seoul’s new interest in stronger weapons received a boost Tuesday when the Trump administration agreed to remove previous restrictions on South Korean missiles.

But South Korean hunger for military strength goes beyond just missiles. Government officials also endorse the nation getting nuclear-powered submarines. And Seoul’s defense minister says the idea of bringing back U.S. tactical nukes to South Korea should be “deeply considered” by the allies.

This shift right by the liberal Moon underscores deep unease that the North’s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal will undermine the country’s decades-long alliance with the United States. Pyongyang may soon perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile that can target the U.S. mainland.

Here are some of the military capabilities South Korea is pursuing or may soon:

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BALLISTIC MISSILES

South Korea says stronger missiles are crucial to the so-called “kill chain” pre-emptive strike capability it wants to use to target North Korea. A pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang’s leadership would be difficult to undertake, but it’s widely seen as the most realistic of the limited military options Seoul has to deny a nuclear attack from its rival.

In August, South Korea conducted the last scheduled flight test of a new missile with a range of 800 kilometers (500 miles). It will soon join the “Hyunmoo” family of ballistic missiles that currently have a maximum range of 500 kilometers (310 miles).

While Seoul’s military says its missiles are currently capable of wiping out North Korean structures on land, it says heavier warheads are needed to target North Korea’s underground facilities and bunkers.

Following North Korea’s second test of an ICBM in July, Moon ordered his military to schedule talks with the United States to increase warhead weight limits on South Korea’s maximum-range missiles. Moon’s office didn’t announce any changes to the range limit on Tuesday.

South Korean missile developments have been constrained by a bilateral guideline between the allies since the late 1970s, when Washington sought to check Seoul’s missile development under military dictator Park Chung-hee, a staunch anti-communist who ruled South Korea in the 1960s and ’70s. The restrictions have been eased over the years.

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NUCLEAR-POWERED SUBS

Several South Korean government officials, including Prime Minster Lee Nak-yon, the country’s No. 2, have been calling for South Korea to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. South Korea’s navy is planning a feasibility study over getting such vessels, although some experts see the possibility as low.

Supporters say such vessels are critical for coping with North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile system because they can operate much longer than conventional diesel-powered submarines without refueling. That gives them a better chance to find and track North Korean subs, they argue.

In August last year, the North successfully test-fired for the first time a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew about 500 kilometers (310 miles). Such technology in the hands of North Korea is an alarming thought for South Korea and Japan because such weapons are harder to detect before launch.

If South Korea makes a real push for nuclear-powered subs, critics say it may never overcome political and technical hurdles. Washington may also balk at Seoul’s acquisition of the enriched uranium needed to operate such submarines. Critics also argue that Washington already provides its ally a nuclear umbrella of protection and can easily ship in assets to detect and contain North Korean submarines when needed.

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TACTICAL NUKES

Experts say South Korea would have an even harder time persuading the United States to re-introduce tactical nukes to the Korean Peninsula. These were withdrawn in the 1990s.

Even so, that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from South Korea’s largest conservative party from demanding the return of the weapons. Song Young-moo, Seoul’s defense minister, told lawmakers Monday that the allies should consider the issue.

South Koreans who support the return of U.S. tactical nukes often raise fears of rifts in the decades-old security alliance between Washington and Seoul because of North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons program.

If North Korea obtains a fully functional ICBM, the United States might hesitate using its nuclear weapons to defend South Korea because of worries that North Korea might then strike a U.S. city, they say. Placing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea would make clear the intent to use nukes in a crisis.

Critics say it’s highly unlikely the United States would ever agree because it now relies on homeland and sea-based military assets to provide its allies extended nuclear deterrence. Some South Korean military experts say the nukes wouldn’t meaningfully improve the South’s defense and would only provide North Korea more targets to destroy or even attempt to steal.


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US flies bombers, fighters in show of force against N.Korea

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The United States flew some of its most advanced warplanes in bombing drills with ally South Korea on Thursday, a clear warning after North Korea launched a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry nuclear bombs over Japan earlier this week, the U.S. and South Korean militaries said. North Korea hates such displays of U.S. military might at close range and will likely respond with fury.

Two U.S. B-1B supersonic bombers and four F-35B stealth fighter jets joined four South Korean F-15 fighters in live-fire exercises at a military field in eastern South Korea that simulated precision strikes against the North’s “core facilities,” according to the U.S. Pacific Command and South Korea’s Defense Ministry. The B-1Bs were flown in from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam while the F-35Bs came from a U.S. base in Iwakuni, Japan.

The North, which claims Washington has long threatened Pyongyang by flaunting the powerful U.S. nuclear arsenal, describes the long-range B-1Bs as “nuclear strategic bombers” although the United States no longer arms them with nuclear weapons. A strong North Korean reaction to the drills is almost certain.

The dueling military displays open up the risk that things will get worse as each side seeks to show it won’t be intimidated.

North Korea has made it clear that it sees its weapons program, which demands regular testing to perfect, as the only way to contest decades of U.S. hostility, by which it means the huge U.S. military presence in South Korea, Japan and the Pacific. Washington, in turn, seeks with its joint drills with Seoul and bomber flights to show that it will not be pushed from its traditional role of supremacy in the region. More missile tests, more bomber flyovers and three angry armies facing each other across the world’s most heavily armed border raises the possibility that a miscalculation could lead to real fighting.

The U.S. Pacific Command said the exercises were conducted in direct response to North Korea’s recent missile launch. Over the course of a 10-hour mission, the B-1Bs, F-35Bs and two Japanese F-15 fighters first flew together over waters near Kyushu, Japan. The U.S. and South Korean warplanes then flew across the Korean Peninsula and participated in the live-fire training before returning to their respective home stations, according to the Pacific Command.

“North Korea’s actions are a threat to our allies, partners and homeland, and their destabilizing actions will be met accordingly,” Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Forces, said in a statement. “This complex mission clearly demonstrates our solidarity with our allies and underscores the broadening cooperation to defend against this common regional threat. Our forward-deployed force will be the first to the fight, ready to deliver a lethal response at a moment’s notice if our nation calls.”

In Beijing, North Korea’s ally China warned that war is not an option in finding a solution to Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capabilities.

Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Ren Guoqiang told reporters that all parties should exercise restraint and avoid words and actions that escalate tension.

The bombing exercise came as the United States and South Korea wrapped up their annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military drills that involved tens of thousands of soldiers. North Korea condemns the annual U.S.-South Korea war games as rehearsals for an invasion and described Tuesday’s launch over Japan as a countermeasure against the drills. Washington and Seoul faced calls to postpone or downsize this year’s drills.

The United States often sends its warplanes to South Korea, mostly for patrols, when animosity rises on the Korean Peninsula, which is technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

North Korea on Tuesday flew a potentially-nuclear capable Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile over northern Japan and later called it a “meaningful prelude” to containing the U.S. territory of Guam. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the launch was a “curtain-raiser of its resolute countermeasures” against the U.S.-South Koreawar games and called for his military to conduct more ballistic missile launches targeting the Pacific Ocean.

North Korea has been maintaining a torrid pace in weapons tests this year as it openly pursues an arsenal of nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching deep into the U.S. mainland. Experts say Kim wants a real nuclear deterrent against the United States to ensure the survival of his government and likely believes that it will strengthen his negotiating position when North Korea returns to talks.

Pyongyang had earlier threatened to fire a salvo of Hwasong-12s toward Guam, which is home to key U.S. military bases and strategic long-range bombers the North finds threatening. It also flight tested a pair of developmental ICBMs in July.

South Korean analysts said that the North’s threat against Guam and the launch over Japan on Tuesday are likely attempts to make launches over Japan an accepted norm and win itself greater military space in a region dominated by enemies.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries say the Hwasong-12 the North fired over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido flew for about 2,700 kilometers (1,677 miles). South Korea’s Vice Defense Minister Suh Choo-suk told lawmakers on Thursday that the North might have fired the missile at about half its maximum range.


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