North Korea Stages Long-Range Artillery Drills

April 25, 2017


HONG KONG — North Korea staged huge artillery drills on Tuesday to mark the 85th anniversary of the founding of the nation’s military, as China pressed its efforts to tamp down tensions over signs that Pyongyang was preparing for a nuclear test.

 The U.S.S. Michigan, a submarine, at a naval base in Busan, a port city in South Korea, on Tuesday. Its presence reflected heightened military readiness on both sides of the Korean Peninsula. Credit Cho Jueong-ho/Yonhap, via Reuters

The U.S.S. Michigan, a submarine, at a naval base in Busan, a port city in South Korea, on Tuesday. Its presence reflected heightened military readiness on both sides of the Korean Peninsula. Credit Cho Jueong-ho/Yonhap, via Reuters

The long-range artillery drills were conducted near Wonsan, along North Korea’s east coast, according to the South Korean military. They coincided with military maneuvers by the United States and its allies as well as the arrival of the U.S.S. Michigan, a submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, in the port city of Busan in South Korea.

The United States Navy described the arrival of the submarine as “routine,” but its presence reflected the heightened military readiness on both sides of the Korean Peninsula.

In addition to holding joint naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, the United States and South Korea have been staging military maneuvers in Pocheon, northeast of Seoul, demonstrating some of their latest weapons. A North Korean state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said last week that the joint maneuvers were taking the tense situation on the peninsula to the “verge of explosion.”

North Korea often uses important national holidays, like the anniversary on Tuesday, to display its military might. On April 15 — the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder — the North staged a large military parade, flaunting what analysts said could be new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The next morning, it launched a ballistic missile that failed after liftoff.

The lack of a nuclear or long-range missile test as of Tuesday afternoon led to speculation that Kim Jong-un, the leader of the country, had instead decided to celebrate the anniversary with a large demonstration of conventional weapons.

“We are closely watching the North Korean military’s movements around Wonsan while maintaining a firm preparedness,” the South Korean military said in a statement.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap, citing an unidentified government source, said the exercise involved 300 to 400 pieces of long-range artillery, of the same type deployed along the border north of Seoul. Seoul, a city of 10 million, lies in range of the North Korean artillery and could experience catastrophic damage should war break out.

Soldiers in front of statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the former leaders of North Korea, in Pyongyang, the capital. Credit Kyodo, via Reuters

Yonhap called the drill one of the largest live-fire exercises conducted by the North.

South Korea said on Monday that it had developed radar that can detect incoming artillery faster and more accurately than the radar it currently uses. The Defense Acquisition Program Administration said the technology, to be deployed by 2018, would not enable the South to intercept the rockets but would allow the military to identify their source more efficiently and strike the launchpads.

On Tuesday, China dispatched Wu Dawei, a longtime diplomat handling tensions on the Korean Peninsula, to Tokyo for talks with Japanese Foreign Ministry officials, in hopes of warding off military confrontation.

China, an ally of North Korea that has become increasingly impatient with its behavior, has tried to play a mediating role; its president, Xi Jinping, speaking by phone with President Trump on Monday, has cautioned restraint. The question is whether Beijing has enough leverage to avert a detonation at the North’s atomic test site in Punggye-ri, where, analysts say, preparations for a blast appear to have recently resumed.

As Mr. Wu traveled to Japan, the Chinese state news media defended how Beijing had handled the latest tensions. The Global Times, a widely read tabloid, praised Chinese coordination with the Trump administration, but said the key to defusing the tensions was in the hands of the United States, not China.

“China’s influence over the entire situation is very limited,” an editorial in the paper said on Tuesday. “The United States hopes that China can be like a magician managing Pyongyang’s nuclear activities, while Pyongyang hopes that Beijing will apply its pressure against the threat of war from the United States and South Korea. In the end, China can’t make either side entirely happy.”

Some South Korean news outlets raised concerns Tuesday about the decision by President Trump to speak with Mr. Xi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on Monday but not with the acting president of South Korea, Hwang Kyo-ahn. They characterized the omission as diplomatic fallout from the impeachment and ouster of former President Park Geun-hye, which has left the country without an elected leader until voters choose a successor next month.

In a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Ahn stressed that South Korea was not being left out. As acting president, he said, he had spoken with Mr. Trump on the phone three times, as well as met with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis during their recent visits to Seoul.

On Wednesday, Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Mattis are scheduled to brief the entire United States Senate at the White House on North Korea. The briefing will also include Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary.

While administration officials often go to the Capitol to address lawmakers, it is rare for the full Senate to be summoned to the White House.

Gerry Mullany reported from Hong Kong and Choe-Sang-hun from Seoul, South Korea. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Beijing and Su-Hyun Lee from Seoul.