(ATTN: ADDS more analysis, comments in paras 9-17; TRIMS)
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 such weapons test so far this year after they began in March following months of hiatus.
On March 9, the North fired at least three short-range projectiles believed to have come from a super-large multiple rocket launcher, a week after launching two short-range projectiles of the same type, according to the JCS.
It was not immediately known if leader Kim Jong-un guided the latest firing, but officers hinted at the possibility. The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also reported on Saturday that the country held an "artillery fire competition" of its army on its western front the previous day under Kim's watch.
The previous two 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), or Russia's Iskander ballistic missile.
Rather than following a general parabolic trajectory, Saturday's missiles were detected to have shown a more complicated path by doing a so-called pull-up maneuver over the course of their flight.
Military officers have said that the feature had been shown with the ATACMS or Iskander.
"Given its typical way of testing weapons, North Korea may have brought its ATACMS missiles from the western region and hurled them cross-country," said professor Kim Dong-yup of Kyungnam University's Far East Institute.
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.
If confirmed as a firing of the ground-based ATACMS, the latest launch would be the third test of the system, as the North showed it off for the first time in August 2019 and conducted one additional test that month. The two previous tests took place in its eastern areas.
In North Pyongan Province, the North fired two projectiles believed to be its Iskander ballistic missiles in May last year. So far, the Iskander system has been tested four times, according to the JCS.
Throughout 2019, North Korea carried out a total of 13 rounds of weapons tests, involving several new types of short-range ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
"North Korea has sought to modernize or upgrade its conventional weapons, which could pose direct threats to South Korea," Kim said, adding that their complicated flight patterns and features such as using solid fuels and being launched from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) make them more difficult to detect and intercept.
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 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, 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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