North Korea fired what appeared to be two ballistic short-range missiles into the East Sea on Saturday morning, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, adding that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may have overseen the third weapons test this month after previous rounds on March 2 and 9.
The missiles flew approximately 410 kilometers and reached a peak altitude of 50 kilometers from Sonchon, 170 kilometers northwest of the capital Pyongyang, along the North’s western coast.
In its third weapons launch this month, North Korea seems to have flown what are suspected to closely resemble Moscow's short-range missile Iskander or Washington's surface-to-surface missile ATACMS, according to the South Korean military.
The military leaned toward the conclusion that Pyongyang launched its own version of the ATACMS, which North Korea test-fired twice in August last year. Experts said the latest launches were to showcase the missiles’ improving performance.
The reason for the conclusion lies in that Pyongyang fired missiles five minutes apart, much shorter than the average 15-minute interval seen last year. The missiles also demonstrated a longer range, flying from the western coast, as opposed to the eastern coast, into the East Sea.
“This is classic North Korea testing missiles. Only this time, it moved further west and launched them to check for a longer trajectory,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum.
If the latest missiles were akin to Iskander, however, experts say the test Saturday aimed to optimize the military’s readiness to operate missiles already put into combat operation.
“North Korea could be looking to prepare the units responsible for those missiles,” said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.
Seoul’s Defense Ministry reiterated its earlier assessments that the latest launches could be part of Pyongyang’s wintertime military drills and serve as a protest against continuing UN sanctions imposed on the communist regime.
The ministry said the firings aimed to rally the North Korean people, potentially unsettled by the coronavirus pandemic, against their neighbors in South Korea.
“Amid the difficult times when the international community is undergoing the pandemic, Pyongyang’s military actions are highly inappropriate. We demand it stop right away,” South Korea’s JCS said.
By Choi Si-young (firstname.lastname@example.org