(4th LD) N. Korean leader inspects cruise missile test as S. Korea-U.S. military drills begin

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has visited a navy unit and inspected a cruise missile test aboard a warship, Pyongyang's state media reported Monday, as South Korea and the United States began their annual joint military drills.

The North's leader visited the Navy flotilla tasked with defending the east coast and watched the seamen on a patrol ship stage a launching drill of "strategic" cruise missiles, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said, without disclosing the date of his visit.

"At the drill aimed to reconfirm the combat function of the ship and the feature of its missile system and make the seamen skilled at carrying out the attack mission in actual war, the ship rapidly hit target without even an error," the KCNA said in an English-language report.

South Korea and the U.S. kicked off the annual Ulchi Freedom Shield (UFS) exercise Monday, featuring various contingency drills, such as the computer simulation-based command post exercise, concurrent field training and Ulchi civil defense drills. The exercise will run until Aug. 31.

Photos carried by state media showed a missile firing from Patrol Ship No. 661, with Kim observing the scene aboard a separate vessel.

Experts said it is not certain whether the North's warship has stealth features, but the recalcitrant regime seems to have wanted to show off its naval capabilities in an apparent protest against the Seoul-Washington drills.

Kim vowed to strengthen the North's navy to make it an "all-round and powerful" service group with improved combat efficiency and modern means of surface and underwater offensive and defensive capabilities, the KCNA said.

North Korea will "put spurs to the modernization of naval weapons and equipment including the building of powerful warships and the development of shipboard and underwater weapon systems," he said.

In response to the KCNA report, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said later that many parts of the North's announcement were "exaggerated and different from facts."

"South Korea and the U.S. detected related signs in advance, and have been monitoring them in real time," the JCS said in a text message sent to reporters.

It added that the South Korean military will carry out an ongoing combined exercise with the U.S. in a "high-intensity, thorough" manner and maintain a firm readiness posture based on capabilities to respond "overwhelmingly" to any North Korean provocation.

An informed source said the cruise missile fired in last week's test was not a "strategic" nuclear-capable one given the size of the vessel, which was too small for such an important missile launch. He added that the missile failed to hit an apparently preset target.

Kim's inspection came amid expectations that North Korea could carry out major provocations, such as the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), in a bid to protest the allies' joint military drills. The North has long denounced the Seoul-Washington military exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion.

The leaders of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan held a trilateral summit at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland on Friday and agreed to cooperate closely for stronger missile defense against North Korea.

In particular, they agreed to consult one another in the event of common threats amid the security and economic challenges posed by North Korea and China.

The North's leader called for a "drastic boost" of the country's missile production capacity and war contingency preparations in an "offensive" manner during his latest visit to major munitions factories.

South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers last week that signs of the North's preparations for ICBM launches have been detected and that Pyongyang could make a second attempt to put a military spy satellite into orbit in late August or early September following its failure in late May.

Source: Yonhap News Agency