(CNN) — North Korea on Wednesday defended its string of short-range missile and rocket launches in recent weeks that have drawn criticism from South Korea and the United States.
“It is justifiable self-defense behavior for us to conduct these military exercises in order to preserve peace in the region and to protect the safety of our people and our country,” the North’s Korean People’s Army said in a statement carried by state media.
The launches have taken place as U.S. and South Korean troops conduct annual military exercises in the region. The large-scale drills anger North Korea, which says it views them as a rehearsal for an invasion.
The North has fired missiles or rockets into the sea on several occasions between February 21 and Tuesday, according to the South Korean government. Seoul says some of the ballistic missiles are Scud class with a long enough range to cover the entire Korean Peninsula.
North Korea on Wednesday acknowledged that it had conducted “rocket launch training” over that period.
Who’s provoking whom?
South Korea has said the launches — short-range and aimed in a northeasterly direction out to sea — are intentional provocations.
The U.S. State Department said Monday that launches of the Scuds violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“We urge North Korea to refrain from provocative actions that aggravate tensions, and instead focus on fulfilling its international obligations and commitments,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Those comments appeared to have irritated North Korea’s military.
“The U.S. and its supporters are calling our actions provocation, but they should not talk about provocation when they don’t know what provocation is,” the North’s military statement said. “Provocation is when somebody has intent to hurt somebody else, but what we are doing is to protect ourselves, our country, our land, our people.”
The U.S.-South Korean military exercises, on the other hand, are provocative, North Korea said: “It’s a reckless American way of provocation and they’re doing all this on somebody else’s land.”
It threatened the possibility of the launch of a more powerful rocket.
Pyongyang had previously called for the cancellation of the joint exercises, a request dismissed by Washington and Seoul.
Calmer than last year
The North’s verbal attack Wednesday didn’t reach the ominous levels of its saber rattling this time last year, which included threats of preemptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea.
“Unannounced missile tests are not a good thing, but their political and military significance depends on context,” Stephan Haggard, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.
North Korea conducted or threatened test launches during a similar period last year, soon after it had drawn international condemnation for launching a long-range rocket and carrying out its third nuclear test.
“This year, the political setting is less confrontational,” wrote Haggard, who is also a professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
Despite the current military drills, ties between North and South Korea have improved slightly in recent months. Over several days last month, the two countries held reunions of families separated for decades by the Korean War — the first such meetings since 2010.
And earlier Wednesday, South Korea said it was proposing new talks between the two sides next week to discuss the possibility of further reunions.
Compared with last year, North Korea is being “remarkably quiet,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul.
“They had to do something because it would be politically impossible to do nothing during the joint exercises, especially after they made so much noise about it,” Lankov said. “But they act with remarkable restraint.”