South Korea, Japan and the United States have held their first joint ballistic missile defense exercise in waters off Hawaii amid rising tensions with North Korea.
The Pacific Dragon exercise held on Tuesday included a ballistic target tracking operation to test the Aegis anti-missile systems used by the United States and its two key Asian allies.
“While there were no missiles fired, all participants strengthened interoperability, communication channels, data collection, and capabilities assessments,” the US Pacific Command said in a statement.
The trilateral drill came less than a week after North Korea flight-tested two powerful new medium-range ballistic missiles that leader Kim Jong-Un hailed as a strike threat to US military bases across the Pacific.
Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, the commander of the US Third Fleet, said as well as rehearsing responses to a North Korean missile attack, the drill “enhanced the already strong relationship of all three nations participating.”
However, the military exercise underscores the chasm between Japan and South Korea, which have yet to move past territorial disputes and a history of war, undermining US efforts to present a united front against Pyongyang’s advancing missile capabilities.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense said Seoul and Tokyo will not directly exchange information during the drill and will instead use the US as a “middleman”.
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry has condemned the drill as “another military provocation perpetrated by the US,” reiterating strategic willingness to carry out a “preemptive nuclear attack” if threatened.
The participation of all three countries revealed their “hegemonic scenario for disturbing regional peace and security,” a ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
On June 22, Pyongyang test fired two Musudan mid-range ballistic missiles, which are reported to have a theoretical range of between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers, making them capable of reaching any part of South Korea, Japan and the US territory of Guam in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.
According to the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, North Korea’s recent missile test could facilitate the development of an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the US mainland in less than four years.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last week the Musudan test underlined “the need for us to continue to do what we’re doing, which is build these missile defenses of various ranges to protect both our South Korean allies, US forces on the Korean Peninsula, Japan and US territory.”
Seoul and Washington are currently in talks over the possible deployment of the US military’s sophisticated Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea – a move staunchly opposed by China and Russia.
North Korea, which is under harsh UN sanctions over its nuclear tests and missiles launches, says it will not give up on its nuclear deterrence unless Washington ends its hostile policy toward Pyongyang and dissolves the US-led UN command in South Korea.