(ATTN: ADDS more details, comments in paras 3, 11-12, 15)
By Oh Seok-min and Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, April 14 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired what appeared to be cruise missiles off its east coast and air-to-ground missiles from fighter jets into the East Sea on Tuesday, South Korea's military said, in muscle-flexing maneuvers on the eve of the late national founder's birthday and the South's general elections.
The surface-to-ship cruise missiles were fired northeastward from areas near its eastern coastal town of Munchon at around 7 a.m. during a time period of more than 40 minutes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, adding they flew around 150 kilometers before splashing into waters off the east coast.
Along with the missile launches, the North flew Sukhoi-variant fighter jets and MiG-type planes above the eastern coastal city of Wonsan, and fired multiple air-to-ground missiles into the East Sea, the JCS added.
It was not immediately known if leader Kim Jong-un guided the latest firings.
"The military is closely monitoring the situation for possible additional launches, while maintaining a readiness posture," the JCS said in a release.
The firings came on the eve of the 108th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the North's late national founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un, and South Korea's parliamentary elections.
The founding leader's birthday is one of the North's biggest national holidays along with the birthday of the current leader's father, Kim Jong-il, and the communist nation has often held massive parades and other military events to celebrate the holiday.
It is the latest in a series of military actions by the North, as the regime has sought to beef up defense capabilities amid stalled denuclearization talks with the United States and heightened vigilance against the coronavirus.
The last known test of cruise missiles took place on June 8, 2017, when the North carried out the first-ever test of its Kumsong-3 coastal defense cruise missile from Wonsan. The system is known as the KN-19 by the U.S., and was first seen at a military parade held in Pyongyang on April 15 of the year to mark the 105th birthday anniversary of the founding leader.
"The projectiles fired today appear to be similar to those fired in June 2017. More analysis is under way by the South Korean and the U.S. intelligence authorities," a JCS officer told reporters.
During the 2017 test, four projectiles flew around 200 km at an apogee of around 2 kilometers.
The low-altitude sea-skimming cruise missile is hard to detect and boasts a high accuracy rate as it employs so-called waypoint maneuvering, which allows the weapon to reorient itself during flight and hit a target, according to experts.
North Korea has been active in launching military activities recently, which could aim to make up for wintertime drills which had not been fully staged due to the coronavirus, the officer noted.
According to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Friday, leader Kim Jong-un supervised a mortar firing drill. Two days later, it reported that Kim inspected an air defense unit, without specifying their dates.
"Recently, we've seen the North Korean military's increased surveillance activities in skies near its military demarcation line with China over the Yellow Sea," the officer said, adding that some maritime and air spaces over the Yellow Sea have not been clearly declared either by North Korea or China.
Along with smaller-scale artillery firing drills, the communist country has conducted major weapons tests four times so far this year, all in March.
The latest round took place on March 29, when it launched two short-range projectiles from a large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system into the East Sea. During the three previous tests, the North showed off its super-large multiple rocket launcher and its version of the ATACMS short-range ballistic missiles, according to the JCS.
Such moves appear to be aimed at tightening military discipline amid the fight against the COVID-19 virus.
The North has intensified efforts to contain the novel coronavirus, though it has claimed that not a single confirmed case has been reported.
How to deal with the coronavirus was high on the agenda of both the ruling party's political bureau meeting on Saturday and the parliamentary session of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) meeting held the following day.
Prolonged international sanctions also led the regime to seek to boost self-defense capabilities, according to officials and experts.
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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