(ATTN: UPDATES with S. Korean military's explanation, details throughout)
By Song Sang-ho and Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, March 5 (Yonhap) -- North Korea fired a ballistic missile toward the East Sea on Saturday, South Korea's military said, in the latest flare-up of tensions just four days ahead of the presidential election here.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it detected the launch from around the Sunan area in Pyongyang at 8:48 a.m. and that the missile flew around 270 kilometers at a top altitude of 560 km.
The latest launch, the North's ninth show of force this year, came less than a week after it claimed to have conducted a "reconnaissance satellite" development test that the South called a ballistic missile launch.
"The North's recent series of ballistic missile launches are a significant threat to not only the international community but also peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," the JCS said in a text message sent to reporters. "We strongly urge the North to immediately stop them."
The North appears to have launched the missile at a steep angle from a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) from the Sunan airfield, a JCS official said.
"For other specifics, the intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are conducting an additional analysis as we leave various possibilities open," the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
Given its range and other details, Saturday's missile appears to be similar to the one fired also at a steep angle at the Sunan airfield on Feb. 27, the official said.
If launched at a standard angle, the missile would have traveled between 1,000 km and 1,200 km -- a flight distance for a medium-range ballistic missile, analysts have said.
South Korea's presidential National Security Council (NSC) condemned the North's missile launch, calling for it to halt acts that raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In a press release, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command also denounced the launch and urged the North to refrain from "further destabilizing acts."
"The U.S. commitment to the defense of the ROK and Japan, remains ironclad," the command said, referring to South Korea by its official name, Republic of Korea.
The North's "satellite" development test on Feb. 27 marked the resumption of its rocket launches following a weekslong hiatus that it apparently imposed during the Beijing Winter Olympics apparently in respect for China, its traditional ally and key economic patron.
The test signaled that irrespective of South Korea's election set for Wednesday, Pyongyang is forging ahead with its vaunted defense projects unveiled at the eighth congress of its ruling Workers' Party in January last year.
The projects include developing a hypersonic warhead, a "super-large" nuclear warhead and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) using an "underground or ground solid-fuel engine."
Some observers said the North's continued saber-rattling could reflect its eagerness to bolster its military presence while the U.S.' attention is focused on the armed conflict in Ukraine.
Concerns have persisted that the North would continue to stage more provocative acts, like an ICBM test, under the disguise of a satellite launch, as it made a veiled threat in January to lift its yearslong self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.
Since the start of this year, the North has launched a barrage of missiles, including an intermediate-range ballistic missile, using various platforms, such as a road-mobile launcher and a railway-borne one.
Saturday's launch came as Pyongyang seeks 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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