North fires two projectiles in fourth missile test this month

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North fires two projectiles in fourth missile test this month

North Korea on Sunday launched two projectiles believed to be short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea, according to South Korea’s military.

The rockets were fired about 20 seconds apart at 6:10 a.m. from an area near Wonsan, Kangwon Province. Both projectiles flew a distance of around 230 kilometers (143 miles) and achieved peak altitudes of around 30 kilometers, said a spokesman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

“North Korea’s military actions are highly inappropriate at a time when the entire world is currently struggling due to Covid-19,” said the spokesman. “We urge [the North] to immediately cease such actions.”

The launches on Sunday were similar to those detected on March 2, when Pyongyang fired two projectiles from what its state media later called a super-large multiple launch rocket system. Seoul defense officials believe Sunday’s test may have involved the same type of weapon.

This marks the fourth apparent North Korea missile test this year - all conducted this month. They coincided with the North’s annual military exercises in March.

Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, oversaw the three earlier tests, calling them major successes in advancing the North’s national defense strategy.

Seoul’s military noted the North has made significant progress in shortening intervals between launches, with tests this year involving rapid-fire volleys.

On March 2, the North launched two projectiles 20 seconds apart, while on March 9, three rockets were launched with 20 seconds between the first two, then a minute before the final launch. The last test took place on March 21, but photographs published by state media showed it may have involved a different kind of weapon from the two earlier tests.

“When compared to the last test, we shouldn’t place much significance on shortened launch times [with this latest test],” said a JCS spokesman.

South Korea’s Blue House said it was continuing to monitor the North’s military activities but did not release a separate statement on the weapons test.

The presidential office’s reticence may be connected to the fact that the launch comes only two days after President Moon Jae-in attended a memorial ceremony Friday for the South Korean soldiers killed in the sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010 allegedly by a North Korean torpedo. The incident, along with the North’s shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2011, crippled inter-Korean relations to an extent that the two countries have yet to recover.

Analysts in Seoul point out that the resumption of Pyongyang’s provocations this month could be conveying the regime’s confidence that it has successfully dealt with the coronavirus outbreak and has the luxury of focusing on military development.

Such a strategy could backfire on the North, said Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in South Korea.

“At a time when the world is focusing on non-traditional security cooperation to overcome the Covid-19 outbreak, [North Korea’s] actions raising security fears are unlikely to gain international attention, but rather drag the country further into the abyss of isolation,” Yang added.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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