SEOUL: South Korea and the United States launched a joint naval exercise involving a US nuclear submarine yesterday, as tensions rise on the Korean peninsula ahead of an expected nuclear test by North Korea.
A defence ministry spokesman confirmed the three-day drill — condemned as a “warmongering” exercise by North Korea — was underway in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) off the southeastern South Korean port of Pohang.
Although South Korean military officials stressed the drill was scheduled before the North threatened to detonate its third nuclear device, the presence of the submarine has been seen as a warning to Pyongyang.
The USS San Francisco, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, is joined in the drill by a 9,800-tonnes Aegis destroyer, the USS Shiloh.
“The exercise includes at-sea operating training, detecting and tracking a submarine, anti-air and anti-ship live fire training and anti-missile training,” the Yonhap news agency quoted one military official as saying.
The drill comes as the North has ramped up daily threats of a nuclear test in response to expanded UN sanctions imposed after its long-range rocket launch in December.
On Sunday, state media reported that the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-Un, had chaired a high-level meeting to discuss a “great turn” in bolstering military capability and issue “important” guidelines to top officials.
Although the report made no specific mention of a nuclear test, many observers in South Korea saw the meeting amounting to an official go-ahead for a detonation.
Some predict the test will come before the Lunar New Year on February 10, while others suggest it will be timed to coincide with the birthday of Kim Jong-Un’s father and late leader Kim Jong-Il on February 16.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak urged officials to “stand well prepared” for any test after a meeting Sunday with his top security advisers, and the defence ministry said Monday that the North had completed all technical preparations.
“The only thing left to make is a political judgement,” said ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said, calling on Pyongyang to show restraint.