Pyongyang shoots missiles, scrambles two types of jets

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Pyongyang shoots missiles, scrambles two types of jets

North Korea on Tuesday launched what appeared to be a barrage of anti-ship cruise missiles from its eastern coast, said South Korea’s military, in a show of force staged on the eve of its founder’s birthday and South Korea’s general elections.

According to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), an unspecified number of short-range projectiles were fired from a location near Munchon, Kangwon Province, toward the East Sea for around 40 minutes starting from 7 a.m. Tuesday.

At least one of the missiles is believed to have traveled over 150 kilometers (93 miles).

This might be the first time in three years the North has fired surface-to-ship cruise missiles after a test in June 2017, according to South Korean military intelligence.

The missiles fired in 2017 were Kumsong-3 cruise missiles, which are believed to have a maximum range of around 240 kilometers and are equipped with a guidance system. Tuesday’s weapons may have involved a variant, possibly designed as part of a strategy to check U.S. naval activities in the region, experts believe.

The North also on Tuesday scrambled several of its Sukhoi-class and MiG fighter jets at a nearby location around Wonsan in Kangwon Province, said a South Korean defense official. One of the planes even launched an air-to-surface missile at an unidentified target, the official said, adding it was unclear whether the flights were related to the cruise missile launches.

Seoul’s military was keeping a close eye on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s activities, the official said, hinting that Kim may have supervised the test.

While a cruise missile test and fighter jet drills do not constitute a violation of United Nations sanctions on the North, which are limited to nuclear and ballistic missile tests, the actions come at a sensitive time for both Koreas this week.

South Korea today is set to hold elections to determine the makeup of its legislature for the next four years, with polls pointing to a likely victory for the ruling Democratic Party.

Pyongyang’s actions may have been planned as a provocation aimed at Seoul to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Tuesday’s test was the fifth set of projectile launches conducted by the North this year coming after months of lull in its denuclearization negotiations with Washington.

North Korean military aggression has been played up by South Korean conservatives in almost every election, though the impact of that strategy on voters has diminished significantly in recent years.

Some analysts in Seoul lent greater credence to the suggestion that the North’s tests on Tuesday - since they involved cruise missiles rather than longer range or more provocative ballistic missiles - were aimed at a domestic audience as part of an effort to shore up support ahead of regime founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on Wednesday.

April 15, known as the Day of the Sun, is the most important national holiday in North Korea, when the state usually holds massive festivals in commemoration of the regime’s founder, the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.

This year, however, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has apparently dampened activities in the North, despite the regime’s repeated claims that it has no virus cases on its soil. State media, which at this time of the year is usually occupied with covering mass festivities, has been silent about major events.

An official of Seoul’s Unification Ministry said that while nothing was yet certain, Pyongyang appeared unlikely to hold lavish celebrations this year amid emergency measures put in place to fight the virus.

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

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