|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a joint strike exercise by North Korean People’s Army (KPA) units stationed on the country’s eastern front, Friday, in this photo released by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) the following day. Three days after the drill, the North fired two projectiles thought to be short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea from around Wonsan, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday. Yonhap|
By Jung Da-min North Korea fired two unidentified projectiles into the sea off its east coast, Monday afternoon, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
Marking the North’s first launches this year, it came at rather an “unexpected” time, when the South’s and the international community’s focus is on containing the rapid spread of COVID-19. Following a missile alert, Cheong Wa Dae held an emergency National Security Council (NSC) meeting.
“North Korea fired two short-range projectiles in a northeastern direction over the East Sea from around the Wonsan area in Gangwon Province at 12:37 p.m., Monday. It is speculated that the North is continuing joint strike drills which kicked off Feb. 28,” the JCS said.
“They flew about 240 kilometers with a maximum altitude of 35 kilometers, and are presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles. The South Korean and U.S. military authorities are analyzing further details of the weapon.”
The launch came three days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited the Korean People’s Army (KPA) on the country’s eastern front to watch their joint strike exercises. It also came about three months after the country’s launch of two projectiles from its super-large multiple rocket launcher, from Yonpo, South Hamgyong Province, Nov. 28. The November launches came five days after Kim ordered a test-firing of a coastal artillery company’s gun battery on the country’s western front.
Including the November launch, the North conducted a total of 13 test-launches of its five different missiles or rocket systems last year, including the KN-23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) which is similar to a Russian Iskander; a large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system; the KN-24 SRBM which bears the traits of the U.S. Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) or South’s Korea Tactical Surface-to-Surface Missile (KTSSM); the KN-25 super-large multiple rocket launcher; and the KN-26 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
The projectile firing came only a day after South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested inter-Korean cooperation in the health sector amid the fast spread of the new coronavirus. The South reported more than 4,000 infections as of Monday, while the North claims it has no confirmed cases yet.
In a speech to mark the 101st anniversary of the 1919 March 1 Independence Movement, Moon said the world is facing unconventional security threats, such as the epidemic, and stressed the need for cooperation with neighboring countries, including the North, to fight them. “I’m looking forward to cooperation with North Korea on healthcare,” he said.
But experts say the launch was unlikely to be a response to Moon’s proposal but rather Kim aiming to solidify internal unity through the test.
Regarding the type of projectile, they said it was unlikely that North Korea had tested a new weapon, but that the latest launch would likely be of one of the short-range weapons seen last year.
“The latest launch is likely to be of the North’s large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system or its new surface-to-surface missile — the ATACMS type — as the development of the KN-23 North Korean Iskander has already been completed, and Kim expressed great satisfaction over the super-large multiple rocket launcher which was already tested four times last year,” said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Far East Institute.
“Based on the JCS announcement that they flew 240 kilometers at an apogee of 35 kilometers, it is mostly likely that the test was of the large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system although it could still be of the North Korean ATACMS.”