Tensions between North and South Korea have risen this week, with both sides engaging in live-fire military drills while concerns swirl in Washington that North Korea’s new war-fighting strategy centers on the potential use of preemptive “tactical” nuclear strikes.
North Korea has fired more than 300 artillery shells into waters off its east and west coasts since Tuesday, seen as a response to U.S.-South Korean drills that began Monday and carried through Wednesday with a focus on boosting Seoul’s ability to respond to a potential nuclear strike by the North.
The joint U.S.-South Korea drills are part of annual exercises that also involve Japan and are occurring amid heightened concern over recent North Korean ballistic missile tests, including one early this month that sent a missile soaring over Japan and another involving long-range cruise missiles last week.
The increased tensions come roughly six weeks after the North Korean regime announced a new law adjusting its nuclear weapons doctrine. Analysts say the change enshrined a policy of using preemptive nuclear strikes in the event North Korea faces what it perceives to be an imminent attack that threatens the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.
“Pyongyang disturbingly lowered the threshold for its use of nuclear weapons in some scenarios described in the legislation,” according to Bruce Klingner, a former CIA Korea deputy division chief now with the Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Klingner wrote in an analysis this week that while Mr. Kim has threatened preemptive nuclear attacks against the U.S. and its allies since at least 2013, the new law describes scenarios that could trigger such attack “in greater detail.”
“[It] indicates that nuclear weapons would be used in response to, or perceived preparations for, a nuclear or non-nuclear attack on regime leadership, nuclear command structure, or important strategic targets,” wrote Mr. Klingner. Pyongyang, he added, “has rejected repeated U.S. and South Korean entreaties to address the North Korean nuclear threat through negotiations.”
Increased provocations during the past year by North Korea, whose primary ally is China, have coincided with more aggressive Chinese military moves toward Taiwan, which like South Korea is backed by the United States.
North Korea has refused to re-enter nuclear negotiations with the U.S. which have been stalled since the “Hanoi Summit” between Mr. Kim and former President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump said after the 2019 summit that he had to walk away because Mr. Kim demanded sweeping sanctions relief in exchange for only a limited commitment to destroy part of the nuclear arsenal North Korea has built in defiance of repeated U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The latest tensions are tied to renewed U.S.-South Korea military drills. The scope of the drills, which the Kim regime claims are a “dress rehearsal” for an invasion of the North, had been reduced during Mr. Trump‘s 2018-2019 diplomatic outreach to Mr. Kim.
North Korea fired about 100 more artillery shells toward the sea Wednesday in response to South Korean live-firing drills at border areas near the demilitarized zone between North and South. South Korea’s military said it detected the artillery being fired from a western North Korean coastal town. On Tuesday night, meanwhile, North Korea fired about 100 shells off its west coast and 150 rounds off its east coast, officials said.
Both days, the North Korean shells landed in the northern parts of the maritime buffer zones the two Koreas created off their eastern and western coasts as part of agreements they made in 2018 to reduce tensions, according to the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
North Korea also fired hundreds of shells at the buffer zones Friday in its most significant direct violation of the 2018 agreement. North Korea’s military said the launches were a warning against what it called provocative South Korean artillery firing drills along the border earlier this week.
“Our army strongly warns the enemy forces to immediately stop the highly irritating, provocative act in the front-line areas,” an unnamed spokesperson at the General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army said in a statement Wednesday.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said its drills didn’t violate the 2018 accord because the shells didn’t land in the buffer zones.
Joint U.S.-South Korean live-fire exercises in late August featured howitzer rounds slammed into a mountainside, swooping A-10 attack aircraft and Apache helicopters.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.