U.S., South Korean, and Japanese warships participated in a ballistic missile defense drill in the waters east of the Korean Peninsula Wednesday, a relatively rare display of trilateral defense cooperation that has become more frequent as North Korea becomes more aggressive.
The USS Barry, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, took part in the joint drill, along with one destroyer each from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Republic of Korea Navy, the three countries announced in separate statements.
None of the statements specifically mentioned North Korea, which launched an intercontinental ballistic missile Saturday and two short-range ballistic missiles Monday.
The U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command said the drill “enhances the interoperability of our collective forces and demonstrates the strength of the trilateral relationship with our Japan and Republic of Korea allies.”
“This trilateral cooperation is reflective of our shared values and resolve against those who challenge regional stability,” the U.S. statement added.
Japan’s defense ministry said the exercise demonstrated all three countries’ “commitment to protecting our shared security and prosperity, and to strengthening the rules-based international order.”
The drill, which was held in the waters east of South Korea's Ulleung Island, focused on the detection, tracking, and interception of ballistic missiles, said South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The three countries held a similar ballistic missile defense drill in October; the month before that, they conducted an anti-submarine drill for the first time in about five years.
The United States has long encouraged Japan and South Korea to coordinate more closely on common threats, including North Korea. But such cooperation has been sparse in recent years, amid historical disputes related to Japan’s brutal 1910-1945 occupation of Korea.
That changed starting last year, when North Korea launched at least 95 missiles, by far a record high. Some of the missiles prompted air raid alerts and shelter warnings in South Korea and Japan.
North Korea has also increased other forms of provocation, including by sending at least five surveillance drones into South Korea in late December.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative who took office in May, has taken a firmer stance against the North and wants to improve relations with Japan as part of that effort.
Both South Korea and Japan have also expanded their own bilateral military drills with the United States.
Later Wednesday, the United States and South Korea will hold a “tabletop” exercise at the Pentagon. The discussion-based drill is meant to give South Korean officials a better understanding of how Washington would respond to hypothetical North Korean nuclear attacks.
As North Korea expands its capabilities, South Korean officials, including Yoon, have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the U.S. defense commitment to South Korea, and have called for the United States to increase its displays of military strength in the region.
North Korea has responded angrily to the increased drills. In a statement last week, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, vowed her country will use the Pacific Ocean as a “firing range” if the U.S. and its allies continue their hostile actions.
The statement was broadly seen as a veiled threat to conduct a full-range ICBM test – something North Korea has never done before. All of North Korea’s previous tests have used lofted trajectories, flying high into space before splashing down in waters relatively close to North Korea.
A full-range test would be more provocative, since it would likely pass over Japan and could head in the direction of a U.S. island territory, such as Guam. Such a test could also help North Korea demonstrate that its warheads can survive the intense heat of reentering earth’s atmosphere.
North Korea is fully capable of firing an ICBM at a normal angle, according to a conclusion by South Korea’s Defense Intelligence Agency, which briefed South Korean lawmakers Wednesday, according to the Yonhap news agency.
The agency, which is linked to the South Korean defense ministry, also said it believes North Korea could soon launch a military spy satellite, as well as conduct a seventh nuclear test, in the coming days.