SEOUL, Oct 14 (Reuters) – North Korea launched a short-range ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast on Friday, the South Korean military said, the latest in a string of launches by the nuclear-armed country amid heightened tensions.
South Korea also deployed fighter jets when a group of about 10 North Korean military planes flew near its heavily fortified border, and North Korea fired about 170 artillery shells at “sea buffer zones” off its east and west coasts, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South (JCS) said .
South Korea’s National Security Council (NSC) condemned the north over escalating tensions, calling its moves a violation of a 2018 bilateral military pact prohibiting “hostile action” in the border area.
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Seoul imposed its first unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang in nearly five years, blacklisting 15 North Korean individuals and 16 institutions involved in missile development.
The JCS warned North Korea to stop provocations and escalating tensions.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol told reporters Pyongyang had “carried out provocations indiscriminately” and vowed the motto “watertight countermeasures”.
Yoon’s spokesman said his government respected inter-Korean agreements and that the lifting of the 2018 military pact depended on Pyongyang’s conduct.
North Korea’s military issued a statement early Friday via state-run media KCNA, saying it had deployed “strong military countermeasures” to South Korea’s artillery fire on Thursday.
South Korea’s NSC said the firing was a “regular, legitimate” exercise.
The incidents come after KCNA said leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday oversaw the launch of two long-range strategic cruise missiles to confirm the reliability of nuclear-capable weapons deployed with military units.
North Korea’s unprecedented frequency of missile launches has raised concerns it may be preparing to resume testing nuclear bombs for the first time since 2017. Some analysts don’t expect any tests before neighboring China wraps up a key ruling Communist Party convention that begins Oct. 16.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said it was aware of the recent missile launch and “it poses no immediate threat to US personnel or territory or to our allies.”
Japan’s top cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the North’s repeated missile tests were “absolutely unacceptable” and that his country would “drastically strengthen” its defenses.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said all parties should refrain from escalating tensions and resume meaningful dialogue for a political settlement.
South Korea’s JCS said the latest missile was launched at 1:49 a.m. on Friday (Thursday 1449 GMT) from the Sunan area near the North Korean capital Pyongyang and at a speed of about 700 km (435 miles) to an altitude of 50 km flown from Mach 6.
The Japan Coast Guard also reported the launch, which was at least the North’s 41st ballistic missile test this year.
The JCS said the plane crash lasted about two hours from 8:30 p.m. Thursday (11:30 GMT), during which about 10 North Korean warplanes flew as far as 12 km (7 miles) north of the sea border and 25 km (15 miles ) north of the military demarcation line.
It said the South Korean air force “performed an emergency exit with its superior air force, including F-35As” and conducted a proportional response maneuver.
South Korea’s military will hold its annual Hoguk defense exercises, including simulated field exercises, starting next week to counter the north’s nuclear and missile threats, it added.
In its latest sanctions, Seoul’s finance and foreign ministries singled out four officials at the North’s military think tank and 11 at a trade company.
The 16 blacklisted companies include rocket manufacturing and shipping companies, as well as trading, construction and electronics companies.
They supported the North’s weapons programs and helped circumvent international sanctions by conducting research or providing funding and materials through foreign workers, smuggling and ship operations, the ministries said.
The General Staff of the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) accused the South of having taken “provocative measures” with the artillery fire, which lasted about 10 hours.
“The KPA is sending a stern warning to the South Korean military’s reckless actions fueling military tensions in the frontline area,” its spokesman said, according to KCNA.
The escalating tensions raised fears in South Korea of a possible provocation by the North.
Though there were no signs of panic among South Koreans, a Gallup poll released on Friday found more than 70% of respondents said North Korea’s missile tests threaten peace, the highest since the north’s sixth nuclear test in 2017.
North Korea has described its recent spate of missile tests, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile that flew over Japan last week, as a show of force against South Korean and US military exercises involving an aircraft carrier.
Washington last week imposed new sanctions targeting a fuel procurement network that supports Pyongyang’s weapons programs.
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Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; additional reporting by Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo and Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Edited by Jonathan Oatis, Grant McCool, Lincoln Feast, Gerry Doyle and Kim Coghill
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