(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead with latest info; ADDS more details in paras 2-7, 11-13; CHANGES photo; RESTRUCTURES)
By Oh Seok-min and Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles 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. within a 20-second interval, the JCS said, adding that both flew around 240 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of around 35 km.
"South Korean and the U.S. intelligence authorities are analyzing their type. We found some similarities in features between what it fired today and those launched last year," a JCS officer told reporters.
The latest ones appear to have been fired from transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicles, he added.
During a total of 13 rounds of major weapons tests in 2019, Pyongyang showed off several new types of short-range ground-based ballistic missiles, such as its version of Russia's Iskander and the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), as well as large-caliber multiple rocket launcher.
"North Korea is believed to be continuing its joint strike drill," the officer said, citing the military drill that the North staged on Friday under the supervision of its leader Kim Jong-un. The North has carried out wintertime drills which are expected to continue through the end of this month.
It was not immediately known if Kim inspected Monday's launches, but the officer raised the possibility of his guidance, as Kim "was in the Wonsan area around Friday and we have been closely following the related 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.
"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.
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.
Asked about what the North is aiming for by resuming such launches after a months-long hiatus, the officer said it appears to be trying to show off or strengthen its internal power base amid fears over the spread of the new coronavirus and economic difficulties, due mainly to the prolonged sanctions regime.
"It also seems to be in line with its pledge to continue to build its defense capabilities," he added.
In its New Year's message, Pyongyang warned it would show off a "new strategic weapon" in the near future in an apparent protest over the stalled denuclearization talks with the U.S. Experts said it may mean an advanced version of its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
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 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 also 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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