U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter condemned a missile launch conducted by North Korea just ahead of his planned visit to South Korea, saying it demonstrated the threat that Pyongyang posed to the region.
“It’s a reminder of how dangerous things are on the Korean peninsula and how a highly ready force in support of a very strong ally … is necessary to keep the peace out there,” he told reporters on Thursday just before leaving Japan for Seoul, the Washington Post reported.
"If it was a welcoming message to me, I’m flattered," he added.
South Korea’s defense ministry confirmed earlier in the day that North Korea had fired two short-range surface-to-air missiles into the sea off of its western coast on Tuesday, the latest in a series of missile tests that come just before Carter’s visit, as well as the 103rd birthday of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung.
"The range of these is not that long," South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said of the missiles. "The North occasionally fires these," he added, according to Reuters.
An anonymous American official told Reuters that the missile test was intended to provoke the U.S. and South Korea before the visit.
Carter, who is currently touring a number Asian nations, is in South Korea to hold talks next week to agree upon a coordinated strategy to deal with the North’s military and nuclear threats.
U.S. officials have called for a sophisticated air defense system to protect Seoul from the North’s threats, but Washington has not yet made a formal proposal to deploy Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) in the area, Reuters reported.
The meeting in Seoul will also discuss North Korea's nuclear program, which has seen three nuclear tests carried out since 2006. Pyongyang has said it will suspend its nuclear tests if the U.S. and South Korea canceled a set of annual military exercises in the region, which the North's government has called an “unpardonable war hysteria.”