(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 16-17)
By Song Sang-ho and Chae Yun-hwan
SEOUL, Oct. 14 (Yonhap) -- North Korea on Friday fired a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) into the East Sea and about 170 artillery shots into maritime "buffer zones" set under a 2018 inter-Korean military tension reduction accord, the South Korean military said.
The provocative move came after more than 10 North Korean warplanes staged menacing flights close to the inter-Korean border, prompting the South Korean Air Force to scramble its F-35A stealth fighters and other assets to the scene, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
The JCS said it detected the SRBM launch from the Sunan area in Pyongyang at 1:49 a.m., and that the missile flew some 700 kilometers at an apogee of 50 km at a top speed of about Mach 6.
It also detected the North's firing of some 130 artillery shots into the Yellow Sea from Majang-dong, Hwanghae Province, between 1:20 a.m. and 1:25 a.m., and of some 40 artillery shots into the East Sea from Gueup-ri, Gangwon Province, between 2:57 a.m. and 3:07 a.m.
The artillery shots landed in eastern and western buffer zones north of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean sea border, which were delineated under the two Koreas' Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) signed on Sept. 19, 2018, to reduce tensions.
The North's Korean People's Army said later via the country's state media that it took "strong countermeasures" in response to what it claims to be a 10-hour-long South Korean artillery exercise.
Seoul officials said the artillery exercise in question was conducted by the U.S. Forces Korea at a firing range in Cheorwon, some 71 km northeast of Seoul, from 8 a.m. through 6 p.m. on Thursday, involving multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS).
The JCS issued a statement criticizing the artillery firing and the SRBM launch as a "clear" violation of the CMA and U.N. Security Council resolutions, respectively.
"Our military gravely warns North Korea regarding the fact that it has violated the Sept. 19 military agreement and escalated military tensions on the Korean Peninsula through continued provocations, and strongly urges it to immediately cease them," the JCS said.
It added, "Our military will keep maintaining a firm readiness posture based on capabilities to respond overwhelmingly to any North Korean provocations."
Regarding Friday's provocations, Seoul's defense ministry sent a message to Pyongyang through a western military communication line, its officials said.
"We sent the message to point out that artillery firings in western and eastern maritime buffer zones constitute a violation of the Sept. 19 military agreement, and to urge (the North) to abide by it and prevent a recurrence," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The South Korean military sees the North's latest artillery firings in the two separate buffer zones as the third and fourth instances of the regime violating the CMA. The North earlier violated the agreement in 2019 and 2020.
The latest breach of the CMA came amid growing talk of the need to consider scrapping the agreement in case the North presses ahead with what would be its seventh nuclear test.
JCS Chairman Gen. Kim Seung-kyum and Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, had virtual consultations and reaffirmed their commitment to further strengthen the allies' combined defense posture.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that it was aware of the North's latest missile launch, adding the U.S. commitments to the defense of South Korea and Japan remain "ironclad."
Earlier in the day, South Korea announced its first unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang in five years, blacklisting 15 North Korean individuals and 16 institutions in response to the North's evolving nuclear and missile threats.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang also fired two long-range strategic cruise missiles, involving units operating "tactical nukes," the KCNA has reported.
The North, in addition, announced Monday that leader Kim Jong-un had inspected military drills involving the units in charge of tactical nukes from Sept. 25 to Sunday, during which it staged a series of provocations, including the Oct. 4 launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
The drills were organized under "inevitable" circumstances in reference to the deployment of the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier to the East Sea for naval drills with South Korea, according to the KCNA.
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