(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with more info, U.S. military response in paras 6-9, 12-14)
By Song Sang-ho and Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, Feb. 27 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired a ballistic missile toward the East Sea on Sunday, South Korea's military said, in the recalcitrant regime's eighth show of force this year.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it detected the launch from around the Sunan area in Pyongyang at 7:52 a.m., and that the missile flew about 300 kilometers at a top altitude of 620 km.
The latest launch, the first in just under a month, came 10 days ahead of South Korea's presidential election and amid the armed conflict in Ukraine following Russia's invasion of the country last week.
"For other specifics on the missile, the intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are conducting a detailed analysis," the JCS said in a text message sent to reporters.
"Our military is tracking and monitoring related (North Korean) movements and maintaining a readiness posture," it added.
The North is presumed to have fired the missile from a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) at a steep angle from the Sunan airfield, informed sources said, raising speculation it could be a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM).
The missile appears to be similar to the Pukguksong-2 missile, a road-mobile solid-fuel MRBM, known to be the North's ground-based variant of its submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-1, according to observers.
The Sunan airfield is where the North launched what it claimed to be a tactical guided missile on Jan. 17. The missile, called the KN-24, was seen as modeled after the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).
Last month alone, Pyongyang conducted seven rounds of missile tests, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile launch on Jan. 30.
Soon after the latest launch, Seoul's JCS Chairman Gen. Won In-choul and Gen. Paul LaCamera, the head of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, held video talks and reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring the allies' "solid" defense posture, the JCS said.
The presidential National Security Council convened an emergency standing committee session and expressed "grave regrets" over the launch. The session was presided over by National Security Office Director Suh Hoon.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command condemned the North's latest missile launch and called on it to refrain from "further destabilizing acts"
"While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory or that of our allies, we will continue to monitor the situation, the command said in a press release.
"The U.S. commitment to the defense of the ROK and Japan remains ironclad," it added. ROK stands for South Korea's official name, Republic of Korea.
Speculation has lingered that the North could engage in more provocative actions down the road as it issued a veiled threat last month to lift its yearslong self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
Pyongyang appeared to have refrained from additional missile tests during the recently concluded Winter Olympics in Beijing, its traditional ally and key economic supporter.
Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said that the latest missile launch signals it could continue to routinize military provocations as "self-defense" measures in line with its defense development plan marked by weapons modernization schemes.
"The missile test is an expected step. It is a resumption of launches the North had refrained from during the Beijing Olympics," Park said.
"Should South Korea and the international community take issue with the launch, it might strongly protest it, calling the protest an application of 'double standards,'" he added.
The Kim Jong-un regime is apparently seeking to strengthen internal solidarity amid a deadlock in nuclear talks with Washington and economic woes aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
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