SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired at least one unidentified projectile into the ocean off its east coast, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said on Sunday, with Japan’s Ministry of Defense reporting that it appeared to be a ballistic missile.
FILE PHOTO: The flag of North Korea is seen in Geneva, Switzerland, June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy
The ministry said that the missile did not land in Japanese territory or its exclusive economic zone.
“We will continue to do our utmost to collect, analyze, and monitor information,” the ministry said in a statement on Twitter.
If confirmed as a ballistic missile, it would be the fourth round of launches this month as North Korean troops conduct ongoing military drills, usually personally overseen by leader Kim Jong Un.
“Coming this early in the year, the only time we’ve seen tests this frequently were in 2016 and 2017, both of which were huge years for North Korea’s missile program,” Shea Cotton, senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said in a post on Twitter.
The last test launch was on March 21. Based on photographs released by North Korean state media, analysts identified those weapons as KN-24 short-range ballistic missiles.
United Nations Security Council resolutions bar North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, and the country has been heavily sanctioned over its missile and nuclear weapons programs.
This month’s military drills have been conducted despite a border lockdown and quarantine measures imposed in North Korea in an effort to prevent an outbreak of the new coronavirus, or of the disease the virus causes known as COVID-19.
The politically and economically isolated country has not reported any confirmed cases, though some foreign experts have raised doubts over that.
In military drills at the beginning of the month, North Korean soldiers around Kim Jong Un were seen wearing protective face masks, but in photos of the March 21 drill, those masks were gone.
March has been a typical time for North Korea to conduct military drills, including tests of its ballistic missiles.
For the previous two years, however, it had avoided such springtime launches amid denuclearization talks with the United States.
Those talks have since stalled, and this year’s string of tests and military drills appear aimed at underscoring North Korea’s return to a more hard-line policy, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.
“There is an element of projecting a business-as-usual image amid the COVID-19 situation, but I think it’s not overriding,” he said. “These tests do allow Kim Jong Un to show that he’s sticking to the hard-line policy he laid out in December 2019.”
Reporting by Josh Smith; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Rosalba O’Brien