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North Korea warns of turning Pacific into ‘firing range’ after latest missile test

SEOUL, Feb 20 (Reuters) – North Korea launched two more ballistic missiles off its east coast on Monday, as leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister warned US forces to halt military exercises and said the reclusive nuclear state could Pacific into a “shooting gallery”.

The launches come just two days after North Korea launched an ICBM into the sea off Japan’s west coast, prompting the United States to hold joint air exercises with South Korea and separately with Japan on Sunday.

North Korea’s state media confirmed that it fired two projectiles from a multiple rocket launcher, targeting targets 395 km (245 miles) and 337 km (209 miles) away, respectively.

“The 600mm multiple rocket launcher mobilized when firing … is a tactical nuclear weapons asset” that can “paralyze” an enemy airfield, state news agency KCNA said.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said the two missiles, launched at 2200 GMT, reached maximum altitudes of about 100 km and 50 km and fell outside Japan’s EEZ.

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Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he had requested an emergency UN Security Council meeting over the launches, and Jiji News Agency said the gathering was scheduled for Monday 2000 GMT.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly condemned the launches as a “serious provocation” that should be stopped immediately.

Seoul’s foreign ministry on Monday announced sanctions on four people and five entities linked to Pyongyang’s weapons programs over recent ICBM and missile tests, in what it said was its fastest response yet to the North’s provocations.

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“Our government has made it clear that North Korea’s provocations will definitely come at a price. Its repeated provocations will lead to a strengthening of South Korea-US deterrence and a tightening of the global sanctions network,” the ministry said in a statement.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said the recent launch poses no immediate threat but highlights the “destabilizing effect” of North Korea’s illicit weapons programs.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called on Pyongyang to “immediately desist from any further provocative action” prohibited by Security Council resolutions and to resume dialogue on denuclearization.

VOLTAGES RISING

North Korean leader Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong warned of an increased presence of strategic US military assets after joint air exercises with his Asian allies over the weekend.

“The frequency with which we use the Pacific as our firing range depends on the action nature of US forces,” she said in a statement transmitted by KCNA.

The United States and South Korea will hold simulated nuclear exercises aimed at improving the operations of American nuclear facilities this week, as well as the annual Spring Freedom Shield field training exercise in March.

“Tensions on the peninsula are likely to peak in the coming months as North Korea accelerates its military actions at a higher frequency, and their statement indicates it will proceed with impromptu missile tests, using the Pacific Ocean as a firing range,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Park Won-gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University, said Monday’s missile launch and statement are in line with the North Korean foreign ministry’s recent threat to issue “unprecedentedly tough and strong” responses to joint allied military exercises.

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“North Korea appears to be trying to bolster its nuclear capabilities by raising drill issues,” Park said.

Monday’s missile launch marks the North’s third known weapons test this year, after last year’s launch of an unprecedented number of missiles, including ICBMs, capable of striking anywhere in the United States.

Kim Yo Jong also criticized some South Korean experts’ assessment that the “sudden” ICBM test required nine hours of preparation time, saying the launch time was complete after US and South Korean reconnaissance planes involved in air patrols withdrew.

“We have satisfactory technology and capabilities and will now focus on increasing the quantity of their forces,” she said. “We reiterate that nothing has changed in our will to make the worst maniacs who escalate tensions pay the price for their actions.”

Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Chang-ran Kim in Tokyo; Additional reporting from Brendan O’Brien in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Edited by Lisa Shumaker, Diane Craft and Lincoln Feast.

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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