South eyes Pyongyang after its missile launches

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South eyes Pyongyang after its missile launches

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense called North Korea’s launch of four short-range missiles “an intentional provocation” against the ongoing joint military drills between Seoul and Washington.

“We judge it was an intentional provocation [by North Korea] to fire off missiles while South Korea and the United States are conducting the Key Resolve exercises,” Kim Min-seok, the ministry’s spokesman, said at a daily briefing yesterday.

“Given the fact that a North Korean military patrol ship violated the Northern Limit Line [NLL] two days before the missile launch, we assume the firing was a planned provocation.”

North Korea test-fired four short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea from a launch site in Kitdaeryong, a mountainous region in Kangwon Province, starting at 5:42 p.m. on Thursday, the South Korean military told reporters that day.

The range of each missile was estimated to be at least 200 kilometers (124 miles), Seoul said. They are believed to be Scud-series ballistic missiles. If those speculations are true, it would be the first time since 2009 that North Korea has launched such a weapon.

“Because most of North Korea’s Scud missiles can be placed on a mobile launch pad, they can prepare for a launch within a short time period,” Kim said. “Given the fact that the entire Korean Peninsula is under the range of those missiles, we are concluding that North Korea had a purpose for this provocation.”

The South Korean military is focusing on the timing of the launch, as it comes just days after a North Korean patrol ship abruptly entered into South Korean waters, crossing a disputed maritime border.

“We are paying attention to the fact that North Korea is militarily active, particularly as tensions eased following reunions for families [separated during the 1950-53 Korean War],” a South Korean military official told the JoongAng Ilbo. “Instead of reducing its military exercises in defiance against the South Korea-U.S. military drills, the regime could show its protest another way.”

On Monday, the first day of annual military drills between Seoul and Washington, the South Korean military discovered that a North Korean military vessel had strayed across the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border in the Yellow Sea, three times from Monday evening until early Tuesday morning. After the South Korean military broadcast warnings, the ship slowly returned to the North in a zigzag path.

On Thursday, North Korea abruptly held a press conference in Pyongyang, where a South Korean Baptist missionary appeared and claimed to have been abducted and arrested more than four months ago on suspicion of trying to establish underground Christian churches in the North. He asked for mercy, imploring the regime to release him.

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, in charge of all inter-Korean cooperation, said the missile launch should not cast a shadow on the conciliatory mood on the Korean Peninsula.

“We hope North Korea’s missile launch won’t affect inter-Korean relations, including further family reunions,” Kim Eui-do, the spokesman of the ministry said yesterday at a briefing.

After family reunions ended, South Korea proposed medical assistance for North Korea, which is currently struggling to contain an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a highly infectious virus that can kill livestock.

Pyongyang has not yet responded to the offer.

BY KIM HEE-JIN [heejin@joongang.co.kr]

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