South Korea shrugged off North Korea’s firing of short-range missiles saying yesterday they were part of routine military exercises and warning more launches are likely in coming days.
Whether the communist country would fire a long-range missile toward Hawaii remained unclear, though US defense officials said such a launch did not appear imminent.
The North fired four short-range missiles off its east coast on Thursday, just ahead of the US Independence Day holiday that falls this weekend.
The US and Japan called the North’s move “provocative.”
But South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said Seoul did not attach much significance to the missile launches, calling them part of a routine military exercise.
The short-range missiles are not seen as a threat by South Korea and the US, which have far more sophisticated weapons. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, citing an unidentified military official, reported that all four missiles flew about 100km.
The launches, however, have highlighted concerns over North Korea’s broader missile intentions, especially after the country warned ships to stay away from waters off its eastern coast until next Friday.
Speculation has centered on whether the North may try to fire a long-range missile toward Hawaii during the period. In April, North Korea threatened to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Such a move would be seen as another challenge to the US, which has been rallying international support for enforcement of U.N. sanctions imposed against Pyongyang following its May 25 nuclear test.
Earlier yesterday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it was closely monitoring North Korean military sites because the communist nation may fire more missiles in coming days.
Several US Defense Department officials, however, said there was nothing to indicate that North Korea is ready to launch a long-range ballistic missile and there appears to be no immediate threat to the US.
Missile defenses were strengthened following a report in a Japanese newspaper last month that the North might fire a long-range missile toward Hawaii early this month.
While Americans were celebrating Independence Day in 2006, North Korea also fired a barrage of missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2 that broke apart and fell into the ocean.
Separately, a North Korean ship that had changed course after being shadowed for more than a week by the US Navy passed through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday and was heading toward North Korea, South Korean news channel YTN reported, citing an unidentified diplomatic source.
The Kang Nam 1 — originally believed to be bound for Myanmar, possibly with illicit weapons on board — turned around at Myanmar’s request and the Southeast Asian country appeared to have offered compensation to the North, YTN said.
A UN resolution passed after North Korea’s May 25 nuclear test seeks to clamp down on the country’s trading of banned arms and weapons-related material by requiring UN member states to request inspections of ships suspected of carrying prohibited cargo.
North Korea has said it would consider any interception of its ships a declaration of war.