March 7, 2017
North Korea’s latest missile tests were a rehearsal for an attack on US forces in Japan, Pyongyang has revealed, ratcheting up tensions with two of its sworn enemies even as relations with erstwhile ally Malaysia took a nosedive.
The increasingly isolated nation on Monday launched a barrage of ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, prompting widespread international condemnation.
The tests were conducted by an artillery unit under Pyongyang’s nuclear command that had been “tasked to strike the bases of the US imperialist aggression forces in Japan”, the country’s state-run KCNA news agency said.
The remarks came as North Korea announced that Malaysians currently inside the country would be prevented from leaving amid an escalating diplomatic dispute over the assassination last month in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un.
Reezal Merican, Malaysia’s deputy foreign minister, told reporters on Tuesday that there were 11 Malaysians presently in North Korea — two UN World Food Programme workers, three embassy staff and the diplomats’ family members.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak slammed Pyongyang’s “abhorrent act”, which he said amounted to “holding our citizens hostage”.
Mr Najib said Malaysia would “not hesitate to take all measures necessary” when its citizens were threatened, and announced that North Koreans in Malaysia would be prevented from leaving “until we are assured of the safety and security of all Malaysians in North Korea”.
Tuesday’s moves are the latest in a dramatically spiralling spat between Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang. Malaysia, which before last week was the only country that had a visa-free travel arrangement with North Korea, had until recently enjoyed cordial relations with the reclusive east Asian nation.
On Monday North Korea’s ambassador was expelled from Malaysia. Pyongyang responded on Tuesday by banning all Malaysians from leaving North Korea in a decision KCNA said was aimed at securing the safety of its citizens in the south-east Asian country.
Kuala Lumpur almost immediately reciprocated with a ban on North Koreans leaving Malaysia.
Adding to the soaring regional tensions, the US and South Korean governments on Tuesday began to deploy a controversial US missile shield on South Korean soil that has outraged China.
Parts for the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence platform, or Thaad, began arriving in South Korea on Monday, despite bitter opposition from Beijing, which fears the installation’s radar will be used to spy on its military developments.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the deployment would boost Washington’s capability to defend against Pyongyang.
Monday’s North Korean missile tests were supervised personally by Kim Jong Un, KCNA reported, quoting the supreme leader as saying: “The four ballistic rockets launched simultaneously are so accurate that they look like acrobatic flying corps in formation.”
According to US defence sources, Pyongyang had attempted to fire five missiles but one failed to launch.
The tests came in response to the ongoing “Foal Eagle” joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington in South Korea. Pyongyang has described the drills as “the most undisguised nuclear war manoeuvres”, which it says are driving the Korean peninsula and north-east Asia towards “nuclear disaster”.
“It may go over to an actual war,” said Ja Song Nam, the North Korean ambassador to the UN. “Consequently, the situation on the Korean peninsula is again inching to the brink of a nuclear war.”
The KCNA report said that “in the hearts of artillerymen . . . there was burning desire to mercilessly retaliate against the warmongers going ahead with their joint war exercises”.
South Korea said the missiles, which flew about 1,000km at an altitude of 260km, were unlikely to be intercontinental ballistic missiles. Three of the projectiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone, roughly 370km from the country’s coastline, sparking alarm in Tokyo.
In a phone call, US president Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed that North Korea’s missiles programme had entered a “new phase” and posed a “clear challenge” to the region.
This year Pyongyang threatened to launch a long-range missile in comments that caused alarm in the US.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
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