North Korea fires record number of missiles in a single day, South responds with show of force

North Korea fired at least 23 missiles into the sea on Wednesday, including one that landed less than 60 kilometres off South Korea's coast, which South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol described as "territorial encroachment" and Washington denounced as "reckless."

North Korea fires over 20 missiles; 1st time a ballistic missile has landed near the South's waters

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol attends National Security Council in Seoul, after North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile on Wednesday. (Yonhap/Reuters)

North Korea fired at least 23 missiles into the sea on Wednesday, including one that landed less than 60 kilometres off South Korea's coast, which South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol described as "territorial encroachment" and Washington denounced as "reckless."

It was the first time a ballistic missile had landed near the South's waters since the peninsula was divided, and the most missiles fired by the North in a single day. South Korea issued rare air raid warnings and launched its own missiles in response.

The launches came just hours after Pyongyang demanded that the United States and South Korea stop large-scale military exercises, saying such "military rashness and provocation can be no longer tolerated."

In Washington, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby called the North Korean launches "reckless" and said the United States would make sure it had the military capabilities in place to defend its treaty allies South Korea and Japan.

The missile landed outside South Korea's territorial waters, but south of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), a disputed inter-Korean maritime border.

South Korean warplanes in response fired three air-to-ground missiles into the sea north across the NLL in response, the South's military said. An official said the weapons used included an AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER, which is a U.S.-made precision attack weapon that can fly for up to 270 kilometres with a 360-kilogram warhead.

The South's launches came after Yoon's office vowed a "swift and firm response."

People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with live footage of the South Korean island of Ulleungdo, at a railway station in Seoul, on Wednesday. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

"North Korea's provocation today was an effective act of territorial encroachment by a missile intruding the NLL for the first time since [the two Koreas'] division," Yoon's office said.

North Korea has continuously been launching missiles over the past year in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said.

"It's unprecedented in the sense that there were so many," she said of Wednesday's launches.

Evacuations on South Korean island

The missile that crossed the NLL was one of three short-range ballistic missiles fired from the North Korean coastal area of Wonsan into the sea, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said. The JCS later said as many as 14 other missiles of various types had been fired from North Korea's east and west coasts.

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The JCS said at least one of the missiles landed 26 kilometres south of the NLL, 57 kilometres from the South Korean city of Sokcho, on the east coast, and 167 kilometres from the island of Ulleung, where air raid warnings were issued.

"We heard the siren at around 8:55 a.m. and all of us in the building went down to the evacuation place in the basement," an Ulleung county official told Reuters. "We stayed there until we came upstairs at around 9:15 after hearing that the projectile fell into the high seas."

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un oversees a missile launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea, in this undated photo released on Oct. 10 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

The North also fired more than 100 rounds of artillery from its east coast into a military buffer zone, South Korea's military said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Angered by joint drills

Nuclear-armed North Korea has tested a record number of missiles this year, and officials in Seoul and Washington say the North has completed technical preparations to conduct a nuclear weapon test for the first time since 2017.

Despite Yoon's declaring a national week of mourning after more than 150 people were killed in a weekend crowd surge in Seoul, the United States and South Korea began one of their largest combined military air drills on Monday. Dubbed Vigilant Storm, the exercises involve hundreds of warplanes from both sides staging mock attacks 24 hours a day.

North Korea, which for years has pursued missile and nuclear programs in defiance of UN sanctions, had said that a recent flurry of launches were in response to allied drills.

Pak Jong-chon, secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, said in a statement on Wednesday that the number of warplanes involved in Vigilant Storm proved the exercise was "aggressive and provocative" and specifically targeted North Korea.

He said even its name imitated the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in the 1990s.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that the drills were purely defensive and harboured no hostile intent. Price also said that Washington and its allies had made clear that there would be "profound costs and profound consequences" if North Korea resumed nuclear testing. He did not elaborate.

Sixty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world the closest it’s ever been to a full-scale nuclear war. The story that’s often told about those 13 days is one of American might triumphing over the USSR — but that’s not what really happened. The true story of that crisis is actually about a relationship between two men who decided to secretly work together, to avert a global disaster. While we’re certainly not in another Cuban missile crisis today, experts believe this is the closest the U.S. and Russia have come to a nuclear conflict since that time. So today, we’re going to tell the story of those 13 days in 1962, and look at whether they may hold lessons for today. Our guest is Andrew Cohen, a professor at the University of Carleton’s school of Journalism and Communication, and the author of several books including Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing that safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula was in everyone's interest.

"We hope that all parties concerned will stick to the direction of political settlement of the peninsula issue, meet each other halfway and prevent the situation from escalating," he said.

South Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said that because of the launches, some air routes over the sea between North Korea and Japan would be closed until Thursday morning.