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U.S., S. Korea, Japan hold defense exercises amid rising tensions on peninsula

Warships of the United States, South Korea and Japan conduct exercises near the Korean Peninsula on Thursday in response to North Korea launches a missile earlier this week over Japan. Photo courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet/<a href="https://www.cpf.navy.mil/Photo-Gallery/igphoto/2003092618/">Website</a>
Warships of the United States, South Korea and Japan conduct exercises near the Korean Peninsula on Thursday in response to North Korea launches a missile earlier this week over Japan. Photo courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet/Website

Oct. 6 (UPI) -- U.S., South Korean and Japanese warships conducted ballistic missile defense exercises Thursday near the Korean Peninsula in retaliation to North Korea days earlier firing a missile over Japan -- its most provocative act in years.

Guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold conducted the exercises alongside two Japanese and one South Korean destroyer in waters between the two Asian nations, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement.

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"These exercises send a clear message of allied unity between our nations and enhance the interoperability of our collective forces," Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Thursday during a press conference. "The exercises also demonstrate the deep strength of our trilateral relationship with Japan and the Republic of Korea, which is resolute against those who challenge regional stability."

The exercises were held amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea has repeatedly conducted weapons tests over the past two weeks, including early Thursday when it launched two ballistic missiles into waters between the peninsula and Japan.

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On Wednesday, Pyongyang conducted its most proactive weapons test since 2017 by launching a single missile over Japan, attracting the condemnation of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, D.C., among other democratic nations.

"The United States strongly condemns this irresponsible act, which violates numerous unanimous United Nations Security Council mandates. The DPRK is urged to immediately cease actions that violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, escalate military tensions, destabilize the region and endanger the peace and security of innocent people." Ryder said, while referring North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The two U.S. vessels that participated in Thursday's exercises are part of the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, which was deployed to the peninsula last month for annual full-scale exercises with the South Korean military that have been on hold since 2018 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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North Korea, which views the exercises as a rehearsal for invasion, has condemned not only the joint drills but the deployment of the U.S. carrier to near its shores.

On Thursday, Pyongyang's foreign ministry said the vessel presented "a serious threat to the stability of the situation on the Korean Peninsula."

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Ryder said he was aware of North Korea's statements, stating the exercises were announced in advanced.

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"These are defensive exercises that are focused on how we would defend ourselves and how we would deter, and they are not a threat at all to the region, unlike the provocative activities coming from North Korea," he said.

The recent barrage of weapons tests comes as North Korea sets a record of some 40 missile launches already this year, surpassing its previous high of about 35.

It also comes as experts warn that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test at any time.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters Thursday during a press conference after he had spoken with his South Korean counterpart but they did not discuss the possible of a future test.

"I would like to continue to keep an eye on North Korea's further provocative actions," he said.

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