New missile test feared as S. Korea-US drill starts

South Korean F-15K fighter jets dropping bombs at a shooting range in Gangwon Province, east of Seoul, during a joint military drill aimed to counter North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile tests, on Sept 18, 2017.
South Korean F-15K fighter jets dropping bombs at a shooting range in Gangwon Province, east of Seoul, during a joint military drill aimed to counter North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile tests, on Sept 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL • South Korean military officials are preparing for another possible missile launch by the North as a five-day joint military drill with the United States kicks off today.

Multiple South Korean media reports citing unidentified military officials at the weekend said missile vehicles "kept appearing and disappearing" from the map and "transporter erector launchers" had been spotted carrying ballistic missiles from near Pyongyang and North Pyongan province.

A joint US-South Korea military drill will be held from today through Friday, Yonhap reported, citing an unidentified military source who said Pyongyang was ready to fire missiles "any time".

"Anything could happen, especially before China's party convention on Oct 18 and during the time between post-drills and (US President Donald) Trump's visits in the region," said Professor Shin Beomchul at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

"There is also the possibility for North Korea to test shorter-range ballistic missiles, which in the past did not lead to United Nations sanctions."

Though the North historically tended not to provoke directly during the military drills, its official KCNA news agency on Saturday slammed the joint exercise as a "reckless act of war maniacs".

President Trump will travel to Asia from Nov 3 to 14, during which he will visit South Korea and possibly the demilitarised zone that separates the two Koreas.

As part of this week's drill, the US has deployed the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan to South Korea. The US nuclear-powered submarine Michigan is also likely to take part.

US F-35A and F-22 stealth fighter jets, B-1B bombers and RQ-4 surveillance drones will participate in the Seoul International Aerospace and Defence Exhibition being held from tomorrow through Friday, but will not be armed, said a Yonhap report.

North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept 3, and has launched more than a dozen missiles this year as it seeks the capability to hit the continental US with an atomic weapon.

The United Nations has imposed sanctions on the North for its weapons tests. Mr Trump has said all options, including military ones, are on the table to stop Pyong yang.

Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who visited South Korea last week, said the Chinese Communist Party's national party congress, which opens on Wednesday, could be a trigger for new provocative action by North Korea.

She told reporters yesterday that North Korea has sought in the past to embarrass China at times when the country is a focus of global attention. "We hope not, but this seems to have been a pattern of behaviour."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2017, with the headline 'New missile test feared as S. Korea-US drill starts'. Print Edition | Subscribe