(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead with latest info; ADDS more details in paras 2-5, 9, 14-17, photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired two unidentified short-range projectiles into the East Sea on Monday, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, the first such launches since it warned of "a new strategic weapon" early this year.
The projectiles were fired from areas near its eastern coastal city of Wonsan towards the northeast at 12:37 p.m., the JCS said, adding that both flew around 240 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of around 35 km.
"North Korea is believed to be continuing its joint strike drill," the JCS said, citing the military drill that the North staged on Friday under the supervision of its leader Kim Jong-un.
It was not immediately known if Kim inspected Monday's launches.
"South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are analyzing additional features ... Our military is monitoring the situation in case of additional launches and maintaining a readiness posture," the JCS said, calling for the regime to immediately halt such moves.
It is the first such projectile fire by the communist country since Nov. 28, when it launched two missiles from what is presumed to be a super-large multiple rocket launcher.
Last year, the regime test-launched missiles 13 times amid the stalled denuclearization talks with the United States. The tested weapons include new types of short-range ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
In its New Year's message, Pyongyang warned it would show off a "new strategic weapon" in the near future. Experts said it may mean an advanced version of its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or an SLBM.
Following the launch, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae convened an emergency meeting of security-related ministers. They expressed "strong concern" about the strike drills, according to its officials.
North Korea had been keeping its military operations low-key in recent weeks amid fears of the outbreak of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, which has swept through China and is rapidly spreading in South Korea.
Pyongyang has claimed that it does not have a single confirmed case of the novel virus, but it has intensified prevention and quarantine efforts. Last week, leader Kim presided over a politburo meeting of the ruling Workers' Party and discussed anti-virus measures, the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
The latest launch also came despite the postponement by South Korea and the U.S. of the springtime combined command post training. The allies last week announced their decision to indefinitely postpone the planned drills as part of efforts to support Seoul's containment efforts over the virus and to guarantee the safety of their service members.
North Korea has long lashed out at the two sides' joint drills, claiming that they are nothing but a rehearsal for invasion into the North.
The Monday firing came days after the first anniversary of the second summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi. The two-day meeting collapsed without a deal on Feb. 28, 2019, and little progress has since been made in the denuclearization negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
According to aviation tracker Aircraft Spots, the U.S. Navy P-3C maritime surveillance plane was spotted in skies over the peninsula on Saturday. It was the latest in a series of U.S. military operations seemingly aimed at monitoring the regime.
Professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies said the military moves would be crucial both for domestic audiences as well as for international diplomacy.
"The North could have been trying to raise the awareness and vigilance of its military people amid a lull in its diplomacy with the outside world, and to show its willingness to continue building military capabilities," he said.
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