PANMUNJOM, Korea - In a show of defiance, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Thursday, hours after U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris flew home from a visit to South Korea during which she traveled to the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas and emphasized the "ironclad" U.S. commitment to the security of its Asian allies.
It was the third round of missile launches by North Korea this week, extending a record pace in weapons testing as it accelerates a push to expand its arsenal and pressure Washington to accept it as a nuclear power.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles were fired nine minutes apart from an area just north of the capital, Pyongyang, and flew toward waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
Japan's military said it also detected the launches. North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday, while Harris was in Japan, and one before she left Washington on Sunday.
Harris earlier capped her four-day trip to Asia with a meeting with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and a stop at the Demilitarized Zone, where she addressed the threat posed by the increasingly hostile North.
There are concerns that North Korea may soon conduct a nuclear test, which would move the country closer to being acknowledged as a full-fledged nuclear power.
Visiting the DMZ has become something of a ritual for American leaders hoping to show their resolve to stand firm against aggression.
At the DMZ, Harris went to the top of a ridge, near guard towers and security cameras. She looked through bulky binoculars as a South Korean officer pointed out military installations on the southern side. Then an American officer pointed out some of the defenses along the military demarcation line, including barbed-wire fences and claymore mines. He said American soldiers regularly walk patrols along a path.
"It's so close," Harris said.
Harris then visited one of a row of blue buildings that straddle the demarcation line, where an American officer explained how the buildings are still used to conduct negotiations with North Korea. Sometimes they pass messages back and forth and sometimes they use a megaphone, he said.
"That's high tech," Harris joked, before adding, "We've stepped into history."
"It's still going," the colonel said.
Harris agreed. "The past and present are happening every day."
She then walked out of the building and up to the demarcation line. On the North Korean side, two figures dressed in what appeared to be hazmat suits peeked out from behind a curtain in a second-floor window. Then they disappeared back inside.
Harris described this week's missile launches as provocations meant to "destabilize the region" and said the United States and South Korea remain committed to the "complete denuclearization" of the North.
"I cannot state enough that commitment of the United States to the defense of the Republic of Korea is ironclad," she said.
"In the South, we see a thriving democracy. In the North, we see a brutal dictatorship," she said before flying out of the border on a U.S. military helicopter.
Earlier, Harris met with President Yoon at his office in Seoul and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend the South with a full range of its military capabilities in the event of war, Yoon's office said.
They expressed concern over North Korea's threats of nuclear conflict and pledged an unspecified stronger response to major North Korean provocations, including a nuclear test.
Harris and Yoon were also expected to discuss expanding economic and technology partnerships and repairing recently strained ties between South Korea and Japan to strengthen their trilateral cooperation with Washington in the region. Their meeting also touched on Taiwan, with both reaffirming their countries' support for "peace and stability" in the Taiwan Strait, according to Yoon's office, which didn't elaborate.
Harris' trip was organized so she could attend the state funeral of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but her itinerary was dominated by security concerns, a reflection of fears about China's growing power and North Korea's ramped-up testing activity.
In every meeting, Harris tried to lay to rest any fears that the United States was wavering in its commitment to protect its allies, describing American partnerships with South Korea and Japan as the "linchpin" and "cornerstone" of its defense strategy in Asia.
Yoon, who took office earlier this year, had anchored his election campaign with vows to deepen Seoul's economic and security partnership with Washington to navigate challenges posed by the North Korean threat and address potential supply chain risks caused by the pandemic, the U.S.-China rivalry and Russia's war on Ukraine. But the alliance has been marked by tension recently.
South Koreans have decried a new law signed by President Joe Biden that prevents electric cars built outside of North America from being eligible for U.S. government subsidies, undermining the competitiveness of automakers like Seoul-based Hyundai.
During their meeting, Harris told Yoon that Washington will try to address South Korean concerns as the law is implemented, Yoon's office said.
Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the dispute over electric vehicles has swiftly become a firestorm that U.S. officials cannot ignore, although there may not be a simple solution.
"It's taking on a level of urgency that's making it into a political problem that requires management," Snyder said. "I don't know that it's going to be easy for the Biden administration to do that."
There are indications North Korea may up its weapons demonstrations soon. South Korean officials said last week that they detected signs North Korea was preparing to test a ballistic missile system designed to be fired from submarines.
The U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan was to train with South Korean and Japanese warships in waters near the Korean Peninsula on Friday in the countries' first trilateral anti-submarine exercises since 2017 to counter North Korean submarine threats, South Korea's navy said Thursday.
U.S. and South Korean officials also say North Korea is possibly gearing up for its first nuclear test since 2017. That test could come after China holds its Communist Party convention the week of Oct. 16, but before the United States holds its midterm elections Nov. 8, according to Seoul's spy agency.
In Japan, Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada expressed concern that North Korea was improving its weapons technology through its "unprecedented" testing spree.
The South Korean and Japanese militaries said the missiles launched Thursday traveled 180 to 217 miles and reached a maximum altitude of 30 miles.
The low-altitude flight path resembled that of the short-range ballistic missiles North Korea fired earlier in the week.
Some analysts say those launches likely involved a new solid-fuel weapon modeled after Russia's Iskander missiles, which travel at relatively low altitudes and are designed to be maneuverable in flight, making them harder to be intercepted by missile defenses. The missiles are part of a growing arsenal of nuclear-capable short-range systems North Korea has been developing since 2019 as it expands its arsenal targeting rival South Korea.
North Korea has punctuated its testing activity with repeated threats of nuclear conflict. Its rubber-stamp parliament this month authorized the preemptive use of nuclear weapons in a broad range of scenarios where its leadership comes under threat.
Nuclear diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea remains stalled since 2019 over disagreements over easing crippling U.S.-led economic sanctions against North Korea in exchange for the North's disarmament steps.
Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writers Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.