SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed the test-firing of strategic cruise missiles, state media reported Monday, as the U.S. and South Korean militaries kicked off major annual drills that the North views as a rehearsal for invasion.
The North’s report on missile tests came three days after the leaders of the U.S., South Korea and Japan held their first stand-alone trilateral summit and agreed to increase their cooperation on their ballistic missile defenses to counter North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.
During an inspection of a navy flotilla on an unspecified date, Kim boarded a patrol ship to review its weapons and preparations for combat, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. It said Kim later watched the ship’s seamen conduct a drill of launching “strategic” cruise missiles, a word implying the weapons were developed to carry nuclear warheads.
A state media photo showed him watching a soaring missile from the patrol ship from another place, not on the vessel. KCNA said the missiles hit designated targets without any errors, demonstrating the ship’s readiness and attack capability.
Kim said he would bolster efforts to build powerful warships and modernize shipboard and underwater weapons systems for the North’s navy. He called for the country’s sailors to build “overwhelming ideological and spiritual strength,” saying that is more important than numerical or technical superiority of weapons, according to KCNA.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement North Korea’s report on its cruise missile tests contained “an exaggeration” and was “not consistent with the facts.” It said South Korea’s military will maintain firm readiness based on its capacity to overwhelmingly defeat potential North Korean provocations.
“North Korea’s naval cruise missile may appear technologically behind but is still a real threat,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “The latest test shows Pyongyang’s intention of attacking South Korea from many angles if it believes the Kim regime is at risk.”
Launches from North Korea’s huge stockpile of ballistic missiles are prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions. Its cruise missile tests aren’t banned, but they still pose a threat because they fly at a lower altitude to avoid radar detection. Analysts say North Korea aims to use cruise missiles to strike incoming U.S. warships and aircraft carriers in the event of conflict.
North Korea was widely expected to resume weapons tests in reaction to the U.S.-South Korean military training that began Monday for an 11-day run.
The Ulchi Freedom Shield training is a computer-simulated command post exercise. The U.S. and South Korean militaries said they plan to conduct large-scale field exercises as well.
North Korea in past years has slammed major U.S.-South Korean drills as practice for an invasion and has responded to them with missile tests. U.S. and South Korean officials maintain the exercises are defensive in nature and they have no intention of attacking the North.
Since the start of 2022, North Korea has performed more than 100 weapons tests, some of them involving nuclear-capable missiles designed to strike the U.S. mainland and its allies South Korea and Japan. The U.S. and South Korea have expanded their regular training exercises in response.
During their summit at Camp David, President Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said they intend to put into operation by year’s end the sharing of real-time missile warning data on North Korea and hold annual trilateral exercises.
The three leaders also announced the establishment of a trilateral working group to strengthen cooperation to combat North Korean cyber threats and block its cyber-enabled evasion of sanctions. Biden said the three nations would also establish a hotline to discuss responses to threats.
North Korea has said the three countries’ push to strengthen their security cooperation is compelling it to reinforce its own military capability.
South Korea’s spy service told lawmakers Thursday that North Korea was taking steps needed for the launches of long-range missiles and an attempt to put a spy satellite into orbit. The North’s first attempt to launch a spy satellite in late May ended in failure.