TOKYO — North Korea on Saturday launched three short-range guided missiles off its eastern coast, South Korea’s National Defense Ministry said, a test of the tentative calm that has emerged on the peninsula after a period of heightened tensions last month.
Ministry officials said the North fired its missiles toward the northeast — away from the South — where they then dropped into the sea. Japan said the missiles did not fall into its waters.
The North commonly fires off short-range missiles — the previous such launch came two months ago — and analysts said this move was unlikely to rekindle tensions that have abated in recent weeks as Washington and Seoul ponder a new round of talks with Pyongyang.
The South’s Defense Ministry said in a statement released on its official Twitter account that it was “maintaining full readiness” in the event that the guided-missile firing “leads to other provocations or additional missile launches.”
The North launched two missiles in the morning and a third in the afternoon, the South said. The staggered launches could be part of a military training exercise or a simple test of the country’s technology. The North could also be sending a message to the United States, which one week before docked a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, in the South Korean port city of Busan. The North on Monday called the Nimitz’s port call a “fresh tinderbox to escalate the tension.”
An unnamed South Korean official told the Yonhap news agency that the North probably used KN-02 missiles, known for their accuracy and relatively short range — roughly 75 miles, according to the Pentagon.
The North, which has been the target of several rounds of increasingly tough U.N. Security Council sanctions, is banned from testing ballistic missiles. But it routinely ignores the ban for the sake of improving its weapons technology and threatening its neighbors and the United States.
Most of the international attention focuses on North Korea’s long- and intermediate-range weapons, which could be used to strike the U.S. mainland or military bases in Japan and Guam. The North’s stated goal is to equip such missiles with miniaturized nuclear weapons, and U.S. officials are divided on whether Pyongyang already has such a capability.
Over the past seven years, North Korea has launched five long-range missiles or satellite-carrying rockets — most recently in December, when for the first time the authoritarian nation placed a satellite into orbit.
Analysts in Seoul said the North’s latest test-firing is a relatively restrained move, given its pledges weeks earlier to launch preemptive nuclear strikes on the United States and its allies. As tensions soared in early April, the North also placed at the ready on its eastern coast two midrange Musudan missiles, a yet-untested model with an estimated range of 2,000 miles. Those Musudans were later withdrawn.
The launch of the short-range missiles Saturday “is not a matter to which South Korea can turn a blind eye, as it’s a kind of provocation,” said Shin Beom-chul, a researcher at the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “The fact that these were not midrange missiles like the Musudan reflects North Korea’s intention to maintain the tension on the peninsula but not raise it to the highest level.”
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.