Seoul/Washington (Reuters): North Korea fired several short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast early on Saturday, South Korea and the U.S. military said, as the two allies conducted annual joint military drills that the North denounces as preparation for war.
The U.S. military’s Pacific Command said it had detected three short-range ballistic missiles, fired over a 20 minute period. All of the missiles failed, with one blowing up almost immediately after launch, while two others failed in flight, it added.
The South Korean Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectiles were launched from the North’s eastern Kangwon province and flew in a northeasterly direction about 250 km (155 miles) into the sea.
Later on Saturday, the South Korean Presidential Blue House said the North may have fired an upgraded 300-mm caliber multiple rocket launcher but the military was still analyzing the precise details of the projectiles.
Pacific Command said the missiles did not pose a threat to the U.S. mainland or to the Pacific territory of Guam, which North Korea had threatened earlier this month to surround in a “sea of fire”.
Tensions had eased somewhat since a harsh exchange of words between Pyongyang and Washington after U.S. President Donald Trump had warned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un he would face “fire and fury” if he threatened the United States.
North Korea’s last missile test on July 28 was for an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to fly 10,000 km (6,200 miles). That would put parts of the U.S. mainland within reach and prompted heated exchanges that raised fears of a new conflict on the peninsula.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missiles did not reach its territory or exclusive economic zone and did not pose a threat to Japan’s safety.
The South Korean and U.S. militaries are in the midst of the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, which the North routinely describes as preparation for invasion, that involve computer simulations of a war to test readiness and run until Aug. 31.
The region where the missiles were launched, Kittaeryong, is a known military test site frequently used by the North for short-range missile drills, said Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“So rather than a newly developed missile, it looks to be short range missiles they fired as part of their summer exercise and also in response to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drill,” he said.
The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with the North because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North routinely says it will never give up its weapons programs, saying they are necessary to counter perceived U.S. hostility.
Washington has repeatedly urged China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in Pyongyang.
China’s commerce ministry late on Friday banned North Korean individuals and enterprises from doing new business in China, in line with United Nations Security Council sanctions passed earlier this month.