SEOUL – North Korea unleashed a volley of five short-range rockets into the Sea of Japan on Monday, U.S. and South Korean officials said, as the allies continued ongoing drills.
Meanwhile, South Korea said it is fully prepared for North Korea to carry out a fifth nuclear test in defiance of U.N. sanctions imposed over a blast it carried out in January.
Military tensions have escalated sharply on the Korean Peninsula in recent weeks, with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatening further tests and missile launches, partly in response to the exercises in the South.
Last Friday, the North test-fired two medium range ballistic missiles, while a U.S. think tank said recent satellite images showed activity at the North’s main nuclear test site that suggest a further underground detonation could take place “any time.”
The South’s Unification Ministry, which is responsible for inter-Korean affairs, said it had reached a similar conclusion.
“We believe that a fifth nuclear test can take place right away. The government is preparing for all possibilities,” said ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee.
Analysis by North Korea-watching website 38 North said recent satellite imagery at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site “does not appear directed at further tunnel excavation but rather to maintain existing tunnels as well as to clean up after the January 2016 nuclear test.”
It supported this conclusion with before-and-after photos showing the appearance of new tracks but snow lying untouched outside one tunnel entrance.
“It is highly likely that site is capable of supporting additional tests at any time,” the website added.
Seoul’s Defense Ministry reiterated an earlier assessment that the North was ready to carry out another test as soon as the order was made by the leadership.
“In this regard, our military, along with intelligence authorities in South Korea and the United States, are thoroughly monitoring such movements,” said ministry spokesman Moon Sang-gyun.
The North’s nuclear test on Jan. 6 was followed the next month by a satellite rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
The U.N. Security Council responded with the toughest sanctions imposed to date over the North’s nuclear program, while Seoul and Washington pushed ahead with their annual military exercises.
Since the drills began, Pyongyang has delivered a near daily barrage of angry warnings, including threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the South and the U.S. mainland.
The missiles launched Friday were the North’s first medium-range tests for two years.
They came days after Kim announced that a nuclear warhead explosion test and firings of several kinds of ballistic missiles would be carried out “in a short time.”
In a meeting with senior aides on Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said this was a “very crucial time” for the Korean Peninsula.
“Even after the international community adopted strong sanctions, North Korea continues to attempt reckless provocations as shown through Kim Jong Un’s recent order,” Park said.