(ATTN: UPDATES with expert's view, other details in paras 5-6, 11, 13-21)
By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, June 8 (Yonhap) -- North Korea launched a salvo of anti-ship cruise missiles from its east coast Thursday, South Korea's military said, adding that they flew some 200 kilometers before dropping in the East Sea.
"North Korea fired several unidentified projectiles, assumed to be short-range surface-to-ship cruise missiles, this morning in the direction of the East Sea from the vicinity of Wonsan, Gangwon Province," the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said. "The flight distance is around 200 km."
Army Col. Roh Jae-cheon, a spokesman for the JCS, told reporters later that the missiles flew northeastward at a maximum altitude of about 2 km from the port city.
The launches started around 6:18 a.m. and continued for several minutes, he said.
The missiles may be of the same kind as what was unveiled during the April 15 military parade. What looked like a new land-to-ship cruise missile on a mobile launcher appeared at the event.
The North has apparently stepped up efforts to improve the accuracy and range of its missiles including those designed to hit U.S. aircraft carriers operating in waters near the peninsula.
Roh would not confirm the number of missiles fired. Quoting unnamed sources, CNN put it at four.
As to Pyongyang's intentions behind the provocation, Roh said it seems aimed at "showing off its capability with various types of missiles and demonstrating its anti-ship precision-strike ability in connection with joint maritime drills involving U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups."
Alternatively, it may be trying to gain the upper hand in relations with the U.S. and South Korea, he said.
The cruise missile firing does not violate U.N. Security Council resolutions against the North, which ban launches using ballistic missile technology.
While a ballistic missile is designed to launch into the air, travel outside the atmosphere and fall back to earth, a cruise missile flies in a relatively straight line above land or water at a much lower altitude.
Thursday's launch marked the North's fifth-known round of missile fires since the launch of the South's liberal Moon Jae-in administration in early May. Moon has hinted at an intensive push for easing military tensions and improving inter-Korean relations.
Noteworthy is the diversity of missiles the North has fired in recent weeks.
The communist nation fired a Scud-type ballistic missile from Wonsan on May 29, which flew some 450 km.
The following day, the North's state media said the missile used a new high-precision guidance system in the test inspected by leader Kim Jong-un.
It was regarded as a Scud-ER (extended range) variant for use as an anti-ship ballistic missile equipped with auxiliary equipment for flight stability and accuracy.
It's an open secret that the Kim regime has the ambition to develop "carrier-killer" missiles.
On May 14, the North launched a "Hwasong-12" mid-to-long-range ballistic missile from north of Pyongyang, followed by the firing of a Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile, also known as KN-15, a week later from another site north of the capital.
It conducted a surface-to-air guided missile, believed to be a KN-06, from the eastern region on May 27.
Experts said the North appears to be trying to develop a full set of missiles not only to launch a pre-emptive strike against enemies' key facilities but also block the move of their troops and strategic assets.
"Currently, North Korea seems to be taking an "Anti-Access/Area Denial (A/2AD) stance," said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Kyungnam University in Seoul.
The United States is increasingly concerned about the nuclear-armed North's missile capabilities, especially its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.
In Washington, the U.S. missile defense chief voiced worries about the pace of development in the North's missile program.
"It is incumbent upon us to assume that North Korea today can reach the United States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead," Vice Adm. James Syring told a congressional hearing.
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