The U.S. military confirmed Tuesday it will deploy drones capable of carrying missiles to bases in South Korea, as it strengthens its military presence in the face of ever more aggressive missile and nuclear testing by North Korea.
The secretive kingdom warned again Tuesday that it is willing to launch “merciless” attacks against U.S. forces if they infringe on North Korea’s “sovereignty and dignity.” The ominous statement comes as tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to rise – with some experts speculating that dictator Kim Jong Un is not simply testing out missiles but rather preparing for possible nuclear war.
The Grey Eagle drones will add “significant intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability” for American and South Korean forces, a statement said. The deployment of the drones, which are capable of carrying Hellfire missiles, comes just a week after the U.S. began assembling its advanced anti-missile system known as THAAD, which is designed to protect South Korea from missiles launched by Pyongyang.
North Korea’s latest warning was a reaction to a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson, joining South Korean forces on Tuesday as part of annual exercises that involve hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both countries.
The exercises, dubbed Foal Eagle, are seen by North Korea as a dress rehearsal for an invasion. “If they infringe on the DPRK’s sovereignty and dignity even a bit, its army will launch merciless ultra-precision strikes from ground, air, sea, and underwater,” the North’s state news agency KCNA said.
The KCNA statement went on to say that aircraft from one of the carriers had flown along a course near North Korean airspace “to stage drills of dropping bombs and making surprise attacks on the ground targets of its army.”
According to Jeffrey Lewis from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Foal Eagle is a rehearsal for OPLAN 5015, described as “a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, including its leadership, as a retaliation for some provocation.”
In recent months, the North has carried out several missile tests from various locations around the country. Lewis says that these are not really tests — as North Korea already knows the missiles work — but “what the military units are doing now is practising — practising for a nuclear war.”
On Tuesday, high profile defector Thae Yong-ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy in London, said he thought plans were in place for a potentially devastating launch: “A nuclear test which the North is trying to conduct at the Punggye-ri test site will break the country into two pieces.”
Thae added that the environmental pollution that would result if the explosion was not controlled properly in a small country like North Korea would be apocalyptic.
38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said last week that satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site showed substantial tunnel excavation is taking place to allow for a nuclear test of significantly higher explosive yields, perhaps up to 282 kilotons — which is 14 times the size of the previous largest test.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit South Korea Friday as part of his first Asia tour since taking office, which will also see him visit Japan and China. The U.S. position on North Korea is in flux at the moment, with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations last week saying Donald Trump’s administration was re-evaluating its strategy and “all options are on the table.”
Tillerson will hold meetings with senior government officials, including talks with South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck told reporters that the situation in North Korea would be high on the list of talking points between the two. “At a time when the U.S. administration’s policy review on North Korea is in its final stages, and our joint approach to the North is materializing through meetings of (recent) foreign ministers and nuclear envoys, Tillerson’s visit to Korea is very important and timely.”
Last week the U.S. began deploying its advanced anti-missile system — known as THAAD — along the South Korean border, designed to repel any missile attacks from the North. In response, Pyongyang displayed a show of strength by launching four ballistic missiles at once — suggesting they were practising for an attack on U.S. military bases in Japan.
China will play a crucial role in attempting to ease tensions in the region. It has called on North Korea to stop carrying out its missile tests, while also saying that South Korea and the U.S. should cease their drills – with the state-run Chinese newspaper the Global Times saying the drills were sending the North “an explicit radical threat.”