(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 2-5, 7-8, 9-13, 15-17, photo)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea on Saturday fired two projectiles presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles toward the East Sea, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, the latest in a series of such launches this month.
They were fired northeastward from areas near its western county of Sonchon in North Pyongan Province at 6:45 a.m. and 6:50 a.m., respectively, the JCS said, adding that they flew around 410 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of around 50 km.
"South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are analyzing other specifics," the authorities said. "Our military is monitoring the situation in case there are additional launches and maintaining a readiness posture."
Calling the launch "a very inappropriate act" at a time when the whole world has been facing difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic, the JCS called on the regime to immediately halt such military moves.
It is the third time that the North has carried out such weapons tests so far this year after they began in March following months of hiatus.
The last such test took place on March 9 when it fired at least three short-range projectiles believed to have come from a super-large multiple rocket launcher, which came a week after the firing of two short-range projectiles of the same type, according to the JCS.
It is not immediately known if leader Kim Jong-un guided the latest firing, but officers hinted at the possibility. According to the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Saturday, North Korea held an "artillery fire competition" of its army on its western front the previous day under Kim's watch.
The previous rounds, which occurred from its eastern regions under Kim's guidance, appear to have been part of its artillery strike drill for the wintertime exercise, JCS officers said, noting that the drill is likely to continue throughout this month.
Watchers say the projectiles involved in the latest launch could be the North Korean version of the United States' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that the North showed off last year for the first time and tested twice in August.
But this type of weapon has not been tested in its western regions, though the North fired two projectiles believed to be its version of Russia's Iskander ballistic missiles in North Pyongan Province in May.
Its adjacent South Pyongan Province was also the venue for two other tests -- held in September and October -- when it fired two projectiles each from its super-large multiple launcher system.
North Korea has often brought its weapons to western regions to fly them all the way across its territory before they splashed into the East Sea in a move to verify their reliability, according to experts.
Throughout 2019, North Korea carried out a total of 13 rounds of weapons tests, including the latest one in November, involving several new types of short-range ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
The recent military moves appear to have been intended to beef up leader Kim's internal grip on power amid fears over the spread of COVID-19 and economic difficulties.
The North has intensified its efforts to contain the novel coronavirus, though it has said that not a single confirmed case has been reported, a claim doubted by many.
State media earlier reported that it will convene a rubber-stamp parliamentary session on April 10, a meeting expected to discuss measures aimed at cushioning the fallout from growing coronavirus fears.
The meeting could also deal with its stance on nuclear weapons negotiations with the U.S. that have been stalled since the no-deal summit between Kim an U.S. President Donald Trump in February last year.
In the face of prolonged international sanctions amid the stalled denuclearization talks with the United States, the regime has also called for boosting self-defense capabilities.
In his New Year's Day message, leader Kim warned he will show off a "new strategic weapon" in the near future, which experts said may mean an advanced type of its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or an SLBM.
Instead of completely turning away from dialogue, however, the North appears to have taken low-intensity steps, though it is banned from all ballistic missile activity under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
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