Russia raised the level of alert for its air defense system just a few hours after North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile on Saturday and after Washington and Moscow clashed at the United Nations over a possible military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
The North Korean missile exploded shortly after launch, US and South Korean officials said, in what is the latest in a flurry of tests this year in violation of UN resolutions to try and halt the country’s nuclear weapons program.
“Russia is carefully monitoring what is happening in North Korea and the air defense forces in the Far East are in a status of heightened readiness,” said Viktor Ozerov, chair of the committee for defense and security of the Federation Council or Russia’s upper house, in Moscow.
Russia, which has a land border with North Korea, is aware it’s not a target of the missiles, but it will ensure no missile lands on Russian territory, he said.
The alert is for air defenses in the city of Khabarovsk, the headquarters of the East Military District, and is precautionary, a source in the district told Asia Times. The area contains batteries of Russia’s S-400 Triumph long-range anti-missile defenses.
While Russia shares a border with North Korea it has never been regarded as a target of the Pyongyang regime, which typically directs its threats of military attack toward South Korea, Japan and the US.
However, the move by Moscow adds to a tense military standoff in Northeast Asia a day after Russia clashed with the US at the UN Security Council, warning that a military attack on North Korea would have “catastrophic consequences,” AFP reported.
The US this week moved an aircraft carrier, guided missile destroyers and a nuclear powered submarine into waters near the Korean Peninsula and has said its patience with North Korea’s violations of UN sanctions is over.
US President Donald Trump this week said a major military conflict with North Korea was possible, though a solution through diplomacy and economic sanctions is being sought
The use of the term “catastrophic consequences” by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov at the Security Council was also adopted by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, though in a different context.
He warned the UN Security Council that failure to curb North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs would also lead to “catastrophic consequences.”
Russia said China’s proposals to restart talks with North Korea should be seriously examined and that sanctions alone would not work.
China’s proposal for a freeze on North Korea’s military programs in exchange for a halt to US-South Korea military drills are “ideas that merit serious attention,” Gatilov said.
North Korea “is conducting itself in an inappropriate way,” Gatilov told the council, but “reckless muscle-flexing” over North Korea could lead to “frightening” missteps.
Russia along with China and the US took part in six-party talks on North Korea’s denuclearization from 2003 to 2009, along with Japan, South Korea and the North.
The Security Council was meeting to try to agree on a global response to North Korea that the US maintains must involve China ramping up political and economic pressure on its Pyongyang ally.
The US has rejected the Chinese proposal for talks and insists that North Korea first take steps to show that it is ready to abandon its military programs.
“We will not negotiate our way back to the negotiating table with North Korea, we will not reward their violations of past resolutions, we will not reward their bad behavior with talks,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson also criticized council members for not fully enforcing sanctions against North Korea.
“Had this body fully enforced and stood behind resolutions enacted in the past, vigorously enforcing sanctions with full compliance, perhaps we would not have found ourselves confronted with the high level of tension we face today,” he told the 15-member council.
Meanwhile, the increased risk of military conflict is having consequences in daily life in Northeast Asia.
While South Koreans are often reported of having a nonchalance bordering on indifference to North Korea – largely the result having lived with threats from its belligerent neighbor for decades – the government has been offering assurances of calm this week.
This is mostly from concern the US might unilaterally and unexpectedly decide to strike the North, just as it did in Syria recently with cruise missiles. The US also started installing a new missile defense system in South Korea this week, which caused some public protests.
In Japan, after reports came through Saturday that North Korea had launched a missile on Saturday morning, some subways in Tokyo and railways elsewhere halted operations for about 10 minutes as a precaution, the Asahi newspaper reported.
Japan’s government has also seen a large increase in visitor traffic to its website that gives advice to the public of what to do in the event of a missile attack.