North Korea has fired more missiles in the past 24 hours than it did in all of 2017 – the year of “fire and fury” when leader Kim Jong Un traded barbs with then-US President Donald Trump.
What sparked the record-breaking blitz of gun testing? Analysts say ongoing military exercises between the US and South Korea are a key factor and warn that Kim is preparing for another nuclear test.
AFP takes a look at what’s happening:
Seoul and Washington are conducting their largest-ever joint aerial exercise called Vigilant Storm, during which hundreds of warplanes from both sides will conduct mock strikes 24 hours a day.
The drills, originally scheduled to end on Friday, will be extended, the South Korean air force said, to “maintain an ironclad joint security posture” in the face of North Korean aggression.
The complex annual drills require “months of planning and preparation,” says the South Korean Air Force.
This year, some 240 American and South Korean warplanes will conduct about 1,600 sorties, which is “the largest number ever” for these exercises, she added.
The exercises “reinforced the operational and tactical capabilities of combined flight operations,” it said.
Why are they important?
The drills involve some of South Korea’s and America’s most advanced fighter jets — F-35As and F-35Bs, both of which are stealth aircraft designed to produce the smallest possible radar signature.
North Korea may have nuclear weapons — which the South doesn’t — but its air force is the weakest link in its military, analysts say, and unlikely to be able to counter stealth aircraft technology.
“Most of North Korea’s aircraft are obsolete…they have very few state-of-the-art fighter jets,” Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, told AFP.
“The North doesn’t have a lot of oil needed for aircraft, so training isn’t done properly either,” he added.
What is Kim afraid of?
The stealth jets, experts say.
This summer, there were reports that US and South Korean commandos were practicing so-called “decapitation strikes” — removing North Korea’s top leadership in a lightning-fast military operation.
Pyongyang’s lightning starts this week are “due to Vigilant Storm, which includes the F-35 stealth fighter jets,” said Go Myong-hyun, a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Pyongyang believes stealth jets are “used in beheading operations,” Go added.
Experts say there are further signs Kim is concerned, pointing to a revision of North Korea’s nuclear law in September this year.
The new law allowing a first nuclear strike placed Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons under Kim’s “monolithic command.”
When North Korea’s nuclear “command and control system” — Kim — “is placed in jeopardy due to an attack by hostile forces, a nuclear strike is to be initiated automatically and immediately,” it said.
What does the north say?
Pyongyang calls Vigilant Storm “an aggressive and provocative military exercise against the DPRK”.
Even the name offends the North, which claims it dates back to Operation Desert Storm, the US-led military attack on Iraq in 1990-1991 following the invasion of Kuwait.
The US and South Korean militaries have been training together for years, and the joint drills have long infuriated Pyongyang, which they view as a test of war.
It has repeatedly justified its missile launches as necessary “countermeasures” to America’s “hostile” policies.
His supporters in Beijing and Moscow agree and have blocked US-led attempts to sanction Pyongyang at the UN over its tests, saying Washington is responsible for provoking the North with the drills.
“But the Kim regime threatens regional peace with illegal weapons primarily because of its revisionist goals against South Korea, not because of any specific action that Washington may or may not take,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Why is Seoul participating?
South Korea’s hawkish President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May and vowed to deal tough with Pyongyang.
He has dramatically stepped up joint drills, which had been scaled back or paused for a bout of unfortunate diplomacy during the pandemic.
Since talks collapsed in 2019, North Korea’s Kim has doubled down on its banned weapons programs and repeatedly conducted tests of larger and increasingly menacing weapons.
Washington and Seoul have been warning for months that the latest missile launches could lead to another nuclear test – Pyongyang’s seventh.
The United States is stationing some 27,000 troops in South Korea to defend it against the north, and allies say joint exercises are an essential part of their defense strategy.
© Agence France-Presse