SEOUL: North Korea fired three short-range rockets off its east coast on Thursday, South Korea’s Ministry of Defence said, shortly before Pope Francis arrived in Seoul on his first visit to Asia.
The rockets were fired from multiple launchers in the North Korean port city of Wonsan and travelled 220 km (135 miles) before landing in waters east of the Korean peninsula, a defence ministry official said. The last rocket was fired 35 minutes before Pope Francis was due to arrive at an air base in Seoul, where the pontiff started a five-day visit to South Korea.
The launches came ahead of U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to start on Monday. Seoul and Washington say the exercises are defensive in nature but North Korea regularly protests against the drills, which it sees as a rehearsal for war. North Korea last fired short-range rockets in late July but has since said repeatedly that the launches are specifically designed as counter measures against those drills.
“Given that the U.S. and the puppet forces of South Korea continue staging nuclear war exercises against us in particular, we will take countermeasures for self-defence which will include missile launches, nuclear tests and all other programmes,” a statement carried by North Korean state media last Friday said.
Pyongyang is under heavy U.N. and U.S. sanctions related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Short-range rockets do not defy the ban but Pyongyang has in recent months changed its propaganda style to include photographs of leader Kim Jong Un personally supervising the launches.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said on Thursday that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) should first stop developing nuclear weapons to achieve peace and reunification on the Korean peninsula. Park made the comments when she delivered her message at the presidential office jointly with Pope Francis, who came here earlier in the day for his five-day tour.
“For unification, North Korea’s nuclear development must be stopped. A unified Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons is an aspiration of the entire world, I believe,” said the president. The 1950-53 Korean War and the divided peninsula have caused great sufferings to all Koreans, Park said, noting that the fratricidal war has prevented some 70,000 people in South Korea alone from meeting their long-lost relatives.
Seoul proposed to Pyongyang on Monday to hold senior-level inter-Korean talks next week to discuss the reunion of separated families. The DPRK has yet to respond to the proposal. Park said it is high time to overcome the painful history and open a new era of reconciliation and reunification on the Korean peninsula, adding that South Korea has made all-out efforts to follow the path of peace and reconciliation, which is away from the nuclear threats and war.
The president said the pope’s visit to Seoul will contribute to the opening of the unification era on the peninsula, noting that his selection of South Korea as his first Asian destination reflects his willingness to deliver a message of peace and reconciliation on the peninsula. The pope said he is encouraging efforts to achieve reconciliation and stability on the peninsula, noting that it will be a unique and sure path to peaceful peninsula.
He said the Korean peninsula’s pursuit of peace will influence stability of the entire world, stressing the significance of diplomacy, which he claimed is based on endlessly listening to its counterparty, not on reckless criticism and armed protests. During his stay, the pope will celebrate several Masses, meeting with the underprivileged, the disabled and those suffering from social disputes. He will also meet with women forced into sex slavery for the Japanese military brothels during World War.
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