North Korea on Saturday launched three short-range guided missiles into the sea, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Defense, in defiance of international sanctions and efforts to bring the rogue nation to the table for talks.
The ministry detected two launches in the morning, followed by another in the afternoon, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, quoting an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"The missiles launched may be a modified anti-ship missile or the KN-02 surface-to-surface missile derived from the Soviet era SS-21 that has a range of about 120 kilometers (75 miles)," the Seoul official said.
He said that judging by the trajectory and distance traveled, the missiles were neither medium- or long-range, adding that they were fired in a northeasterly direction, away from South Korean waters.
In April, North Korea deployed two intermediate-range missiles along its east coast in what was seen as a response to joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises, but they were recalled earlier this month after the operations ended.
The intermediate-range missiles, known as Musudan, are believed to have a range of up to 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) and may be capable of striking the U.S. Pacific island of Guam.
"All missiles launched fell into the sea," the South Korean Defense Ministry official said of Saturday’s firing, adding that it was likely part of a military exercise or a missile test.
The launches could also be a show of force for the U.S., which last week docked the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz aircraft carrier in South Korea’s port city of Busan. The North had referred to the carrier’s port call as “a fresh tinderbox to escalate the tension and ignite a nuclear war.”
Test launches of short-range missiles by North Korea are fairly routine. The North last launched two such missiles into the sea in March.
But tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February.
Both tests were in violation of international sanctions that ban North Korea from developing missile or nuclear technology, prompting the U.N. Security Council to adopt even tougher measures against the country in March.
Pyongyang began issuing vitriolic war rhetoric after the new sanctions were imposed, raising ominous prospects of a nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea has launched five long-range missiles or rockets over the past seven years and last December placed a satellite in orbit.
Pyongyang claimed the satellite was part of peaceful research, but critics said the launch amounted to a banned ballistic missile test that marked a major advance for the North's illicit nuclear weapons program.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies this week completed a trip to South Korea, China, and Japan, where he discussed plans to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat.