Concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program have risen sharply since the DPRK launched more than 70 missiles last year.

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles in another show of force on Tuesday, a day after the US and South Korea began military exercises which Pyongyang sees as a rehearsal for an invasion.

The missiles, launched from the southwestern coastal city of Jangyeong, flew across North Korea before landing in the sea off the country’s east coast, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. It said both missiles flew about 620 kilometers (385 miles).

Reported flight distances suggest the missiles are aimed at South Korea, where about 28,000 US troops are stationed. South Korea’s military called the launches a “serious provocation” that undermines stability on the Korean Peninsula.

The US Indo-Pacific Command said Tuesday’s launches did not pose an immediate threat to its allies. But it said the North’s recent tests underscored the “destabilizing impact” of the North’s illicit weapons programs and that the U.S. commitment to the security of South Korea and Japan remained “ironclad.”

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that officials were still gathering details about the North Korean launches and there were no immediate reports of damage in Japanese waters.

Pyongyang may further expand its weapons tests in the coming days in response to allied military exercises scheduled to continue until March 23. Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his troops to be ready to repel what he called “crazy war preparations” by his country’s rivals.

Concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program have risen sharply since North Korea launched more than 70 missiles in 2022, many capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and openly threatened to use them in potential conflicts with the United States and South Korea.

North Korea appears to be using long-stalled talks with Washington and the expansion of US-South Korean military exercises as a chance to expand its weapons arsenals to increase its leverage over future relations with the United States.

North Korea’s threats, along with China’s growing assertiveness, have pushed the US to strengthen alliances with South Korea and Japan. But some experts say stronger cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo could push Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow to strengthen their own trilateral ties.

China and Russia, involved in a separate confrontation with the United States, have repeatedly blocked attempts by the United States and its allies to tighten UN sanctions against North Korea.

Tuesday’s launches were the North’s second weapons test this week. On Monday, North Korea said it had fired two cruise missiles from a submarine the day before. That meant cruise missiles were being developed to carry nuclear warheads, although outside experts dispute whether Pyongyang has operational nuclear-tipped missiles.

A submarine’s missile systems are harder to detect and will provide a northern strike back. But experts say it will take years, vast resources and major technological improvements for the heavily-sanctioned country to build a fleet of submarines that can move quietly and strike reliably.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday that North Korea has been improving its submarine launch capabilities since its first test in 2016, and the United States is studying Sunday’s launches to assess North Korea’s capabilities.

“But of course we will not allow any moves by North Korea to deter us from taking actions that we believe are necessary to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula,” Sullivan said.

The Joint exercises between the US and South Korea which began Monday, include computer simulations of North Korean aggression and other security scenarios and field exercises. The field drills will return to the scale of the allies’ largest spring drills, which were last held in 2018, according to South Korean defense officials.

Both countries are expanding their exercises as the nuclear threat from North Korea grows.

The U.S.-South Korean military drills will continue as normal regardless of “whether North Korea tries to derail them with provocations such as missile launches,” Jeon Ha-gyu, a spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry, said on Tuesday. US State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that the United States has made clear that it has no hostile intentions towards North Korea and that the allies’ long-standing exercises are “purely defensive in nature”.

In a second straight day of telephone talks to discuss the North’s launches, top South Korean and US nuclear officials stressed on Tuesday that the North would face “obvious consequences” for its actions, without specifying what those would be. They said the allies would maintain a “firm readiness” to respond to any North Korean provocations, according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

Later this week South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to visit Tokyo for high-level meeting with Kishida, where the North Korean threat is expected to be a major topic. General security urgency rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo after years of disputes stemming from Japan’s colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula until the end of World War II.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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