US, S. Korea, Japan start missile-tracking drill

By AFP   December 10, 2017 | 08:42 pm PT
The two-day exercise -- the sixth since June last year -- kicked off in waters near the Korean peninsula and Japan.

The U.S., South Korea and Japan started joint exercises Monday to track missiles from North Korea, Seoul's military said, following the nuclear-armed Pyongyang's longest-range test launch to date.

The trilateral drill comes less than two weeks after Pyongyang test-fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and declared it had achieved nuclear statehood, escalating global alarm over its weapons push.

The two-day exercise -- the sixth since June last year -- kicked off in waters near the Korean peninsula and Japan, Seoul's defense ministry said.

"During the drill, Aegis warships from each country will simulate detecting and tracking down potential ballistic missiles from the North and sharing information," it said in a statement.

Two U.S. ships are taking part, with one each from the two Asian countries.

Both South Korea and Japan have security alliances with the U.S., although their own relationship is marred by disputes over history and territory.

Washington and Seoul staged their biggest-ever joint air drill last week in a show of force against Pyongyang, which is subject to multiple sets of U.N. sanctions over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Tension flared anew in the flashpoint peninsula after the November 29 launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which the North claimed could deliver a "super-large heavy warhead" anywhere on the U.S. mainland.

Many analysts suggest that the rocket is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland but voiced skepticism that Pyongyang has mastered the advanced technology needed to allow the rocket to survive re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.

Last month's launch was the first test of any kind since September 15, and quashed hopes that the North may have held back in order to open the door to a negotiated solution to the nuclear standoff.

The North's leader Kim Jong-Un has traded threats of war and personal insults with U.S. President Donald Trump, heightening fears of another war on the peninsula once devastated by the 1950-53 Korean War.

The South condemned the launch and on Monday imposed new unilateral sanctions on its neighbor.

Pyongyang regularly condemns joint exercises by the U.S. and its neighbors as preparations for war.

But Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera said Sunday: "It is North Korea that is raising tensions. No one in the world -- me, Prime Minister Abe, President Trump or Defence Secretary Mattis -- is hoping to have conflicts."

"If North Korea promises to abandon nuclear and missile programs, that will lead to dialogue," he added while visiting an army base in northern Japan to observe a separate Japan-U.S. drill.

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