North Korean state media released images of leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a missile test on Monday, days after its regional rivals held a historic summit, and as US-South Korea joint military exercises kick off nearby.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim was on site to monitor the launch of strategic cruise missiles fired from a patrol ship, belonging to the North Korean Navy’s East Sea Fleet.
While on board, Kim inspected the patrol ship’s weapons and combat preparedness, and “highly praised the ship for maintaining high mobility and mighty striking power and constant preparedness for combat to cope with sudden situation,” according to KCNA.
It added that the missile test demonstrated the ship’s capabilities and prepared the sailors for “carrying out the attack mission in actual war.”
Photos released by KCNA show Kim, dressed in white and black, standing with his hands on his hips beside uniformed sailors on the ship deck. Other photos show the test itself, the missile launching from a vessel in a cloud of smoke.
While the report did not specify the date of the test, KCNA published the photos on Monday – shortly after the leaders of South Korea, Japan and the US vowed to establish a stronger partnership at the first-ever stand-alone trilateral summit on Friday.
After their meeting, held at the US presidential retreat Camp David, the three leaders announced a new annual trilateral summit, a three-way hotline, and a commitment to conduct annual military exercises and share intelligence.
While the summit fell short of producing a three-way collective defense agreement, it served as a show of force against North Korea’s provocative behavior and China’s military and economic aggressions.
In their joint statement, the three leaders reiterated their call to denuclearize North Korea, urging the hermit nation to “abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” and condemning its “unprecedented number of ballistic missile launches.”
US President Joe Biden also took a veiled swipe at Beijing’s influence by pledging the three nations’ support “for international law, freedom of navigation, and a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea,” and “our shared commitment to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits and addressing economic coercion.”
China responded Monday with a scathing statement, accusing the three nations of having “deliberately sowed discord in China’s relations with its neighbors.” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin urged the US to stop “tarnishing the image of China,” adding that authorities have lodged representations with the parties concerned.
“The Asia-Pacific region is a high ground for peaceful development and should not become a boxing ring for the big powers, let alone a battleground for cold and hot wars,” Wang said.
North Korea’s missile test also coincides with the US and South Korea kicking off large-scale joint military drills on Monday, which will continue for ten days.
The US and South Korea have increased military and economic cooperation in recent years, drawing closer together in the face of growing threats in the Indo-Pacific – and as North Korea has rapidly ramped up its own weapons testing program.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff also called state media reports of the missile test “exaggerated and in many cases different from the facts.” It added that Seoul and Washington were both monitoring Pyongyang’s activities, and that the South Korean military was ready to “respond to any provocation by North Korea.”
South Korean police said on Sunday that suspected North Korean hackers had targeted a company involved with the military exercises earlier this year, but were unsuccessful and no military-related information was stolen. South Korean and US authorities are now investigating another incident involving suspicious emails in July, ahead of the joint drills that began Monday.