North Korea fired three short-range guided missiles into its eastern waters yesterday, a South Korean official said.
The North routinely tests such missiles, but the latest launches came during a period of tentative diplomacy aimed at easing tensions.
The North fired two missiles in the morning and another in the afternoon, South Korean Ministry of Defense spokesman Kim Min-seok said by telephone. He said the North’s intent was unclear and his ministry said it is watching North Korea carefully in case it conducts a provocation against South Korea.
“A more detailed analysis will be needed, but the missiles launched may be a modified anti-ship missile or the KN-02 surface-to-surface missile derived from the Soviet era SS-21 that has a range of about 120 kilometres,” a Seoul official told the Yonhap news agency.
Seoul criticized the launches, calling them “serious” provocations.
“The international community will levy much tougher sanctions against North Korea for its continued absurd provocation,” Min Hyun-joo, spokeswoman of the ruling New Frontier Party, was quoted as saying by Yonhap.
In March, North Korea launched what appeared to be two KN-02 missiles off its east coast. Experts believe the country is trying to improve the range and accuracy of its arsenal.
North Korea recently withdrew two mid-range “Musudan” missiles believed to be capable of reaching Guam after moving them to its east coast earlier this year, US officials said. Musudan missiles have an estimated range of 2,500km to 4,000 km, enough to reach South Korea and Japan. The North is banned from testing ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions.
Earlier this year, North Korea threatened nuclear strikes on Seoul and Washington because of annual US-South Korean military drills and UN sanctions imposed over its third nuclear test in February. The drills ended late last month.
This past month, the US and South Korea ended another round of naval drills involving a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier off the east coast. North Korea calls such drills preparation to invade the North.
Analysts say the recent North Korean threats were partly an attempt to push Washington to agree to disarmament-for-aid talks.
This past week, US Special Representative to North Korea Glyn Davies concluded trips to South Korea, China and Japan. On Friday, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned from North Korea but did not immediately give details of his talks with officials there.
On Monday, North Korean state media showed that the country’s hardline minister of defense Kim Kyok-sik had been replaced by little-known army General Jang Jong-nam. Outside analysts said it was part of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s efforts to tighten his grip on the powerful military after his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, died in December 2011.
The US and Japan are participants in six-nation nuclear disarmament talks along with the Koreas, Russia and Japan. North Korea walked out of the talks in 2009 after the UN condemned it for a long-range rocket launch.
Last week in Washington, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and US President Barack Obama warned North Korea against further nuclear provocations.