*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)
North Korea Fires Short-range Projectiles into East Sea for Three Days
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea launched a total of six short-range projectiles for three days straight beginning May 18, ratcheting up a new wave of tension on the Korean Peninsula while ignoring South Korea's demands to stop such provocative actions.
North Korea last week declared a portion of the sea off the Korean Peninsula's east coast off limits to ships from May 18-21, during which it test-fired the short-range "projectiles" believed to be missiles or rockets.
Seoul officials said the North's short-range "projectiles" were launched into waters in a northeasterly direction, away from South Korea. They estimated the range of the projectiles to be up to 150 kilometers.
On May 18, Seoul's defense ministry said North Korea fired three "short-range guided missiles" into the East Sea, but changed it to "short-range projectiles" on May 19 because it remains unclear whether they were short-range missiles or artillery shells.
The next day, North Korea fired another projectile off the Korean Peninsula's east coast, ignoring South Korea's demands to stop such "provocative" actions. Then on May 20, it fired two short-range projectiles into the East Sea, marking the third straight day of launches.
As to the reason for the changing the name from missiles to projectiles, a defense ministry official said, "Yesterday, we called them short-range guided missiles without taking into consideration the possibility of the test-firing of rockets of at least 300mm in caliber. But, we changed them into projectiles," said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
It is not uncommon for North Korea to launch short-range missiles or projectiles, but the latest tests occurred just as tensions triggered by the North's nuclear test in February seemed to be waning.
Seoul's military officials said the projectiles may be KN-02 surface-to-surface missiles with a range of up to 160 kilometers or new rockets of at least 300mm in caliber fired from a multiple rocket launcher.
"We are currently trying to determine what the projectiles were and the North's intentions (behind the launch)," said a military official. "It appears that the North is trying to renew military tensions on the Korean Peninsula."
The projectiles were fired from a mobile launcher off North Korea's east coast, flew about 120 kilometers in the northeasterly direction before falling into the sea, officials said.
"Whether it's a test-firing or armed demonstration, North Korea should not engage in tension-creating acts," Kim Jang-soo, head of the national security office, was quoted as saying by presidential spokeswoman Kim Haing.
The launch was immediately reported to President Park Geun-hye. The national security office and the defense ministry are closely monitoring the situation, the spokeswoman said.
North Korea claimed the firing of projectiles is "a normal military exercise."
"Conducting military drills to build up a strong deterrence capability is a legitimate right of any sovereign country," said the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, which is in charge of inter-Korean relations.
It added that South Korea and the United States were engaged in vicious anti-Pyongyang activities by making issue of the projectile launches.
The launches come after the North has toned down its saber-rattling in the past few weeks after South Korea and the United States concluded the annual Foal Eagle military drills on April 30.
North Korea test-fired a long-range rocket in December, a move that critics said was designed to test technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile. The North conducted its third underground nuclear test in February and it ratcheted up threatening rhetoric in April during U.S.-South Korea joint military drills.
North Korea is believed to have developed new rockets. If it is confirmed that the North used new weapons during the latest tests, it would mean that Pyongyang's military has acquired another type of rocket that is capable of hitting the South Korean capital.
Earlier on May 19, Seoul's unification ministry in charge of North Korea policy condemned the North's tests of short-range projectiles and urged Pyongyang to hold talks over a suspended inter-Korean industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong.
Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-seok called the tests "deplorable" demanding that the North "act responsibly." Operations at the Kaesong factory park screeched to a halt in early April, as North Korea withdrew all of its 53,000 workers from the complex and barred South Korean employees, parts and supplies from entering the area.
Still, the North's latest launches drew concern as North Korea appeared to be showing signs of easing tensions after weeks of fiery rhetoric against Seoul and Washington earlier this year.
Whether it be a missile or projectile, the latest launches mark the third time that the socialist country has fired off short-range missiles this year. Pyongyang fired two short-range missiles into the East Sea on Feb. 10, two days before its third nuclear test, and another two, presumed to be KN-02 missiles, on March 15.
The launches also came about two weeks after Pyongyang withdrew two Musudan intermediate-range missiles it had deployed to its east coast in early April, along with medium-range Rodong missiles. They were deployed in an apparent move to counter joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises under way at that time.
The Musudan is estimated to have a range of up to 4,000 kilometers that could reach the U.S. territory of Guam, while the Rodong has a reach of 1,500 kilometers and can cover all of South Korea and parts of Japan.
The ruling and opposition parties alike criticized the North's missile launches, calling them "serious" provocations.
"The international community will levy much tougher sanctions against North Korea for its continued absurd provocations. No compensation or benefits will be allowed if North Korea fails to show changes in its policy toward the right direction," said Min Hyun-joo, the spokeswoman of the ruling Saenuri Party.
"The missile launches put a damper on efforts for easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and for dialogue," said Park Yong-jin, the spokesman of the main opposition Democratic Party.
Some experts and officials said the launch is likely part of a military exercise or a missile test, while others speculated that North Korea began to take the path of escalating tensions to draw attention from the United States and the international community.
"North Korea resumed provocative acts after it failed to find chances of bilateral talks with the U.S. around the time Seoul and Washington held the summit this month," said Cha Doo-hyun, a military expert.
Yet the South Korean government is studying whether the projectiles fired by the North included large-caliber rockets with a longer range that can reach beyond Seoul. The South Korean capital is less than 50 kilometers from the border.
"South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are now analyzing it," Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing on May 21.
Kim reiterated the government's stance that the recent launching activities by the North are "threats to the stability of the Korean Peninsula."
The North has recently toned down its bellicose rhetoric, Kim said, adding that the South had detected no new North Korean response to the plan by the U.S. to test-fire its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile on May 21.
But the United States appeared to play down North Korea's six short-range projectile launches, describing tensions on the Korean Peninsula as relatively low.
Speaking to reporters, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said, "We have noticed broadly that North Korea has ratcheted back its provocative actions in recent weeks, and its bellicose rhetoric. We hope that is a trend they hope to follow."
Little acknowledged U.S. concerns that the launches could be construed as rising tensions once more, but said, "I'm not ready to make the call yet."
He said North Korea's launch of the missiles, although the acts can be construed as provocative, "do not necessarily violate their international obligations."
Pyongyang is banned from conducting any launch using ballistic missile technology under U.N. Security Council sanctions.
The comments came the same day the U.S. military announced it would test-fire its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile on May 21. The last scheduled test of the missile was scrapped in April because of concerns over tensions with North Korea.
Seoul officials issued a different view on the North's launches. "Given U.N. resolutions banning (the North's) missile launch using rockets, it could be seen as a violation of them," Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing on May 21.
Although South Korea is still determining what types of projectiles the North fired -- missile or rocket -- the U.S. is reportedly assuming that the North test-fired large-caliber multiple rocket launchers, which do not use ballistic technology.
Analysts in Seoul said the U.N. is not likely to punish the North for the recent launches, considering that it has only reacted in the past to the North's seriously provocative activities, including nuclear tests and long-range missile launches.
Little said, however, the U.S. and its allies remain watchful and will continue to monitor what happens on the Korean Peninsula. "The North Koreans have been known to shift tactics and behavior on short notice," he said. "And we're mindful of their behavior in the past."
The State Department reiterated calls for the North to refrain from provocations. "We're urging them to exercise restraint and improve relations with the neighbors," the department's deputy spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said at a press briefing.
Experts agreed that the North's latest missile move does not contravene U.N. sanctions. "They test-fire the KN-02 all the time. It's not a ballistic missile," Bruce Bechtol, associate professor of political science at Angelo State University in Texas, told Yonhap News Agency by phone.
"For short range missile tests like the KN-02, that's just a standard military test, a training exercise. Those are anti-ship missiles, and they're going to do that two or three times a year anyway, no matter what the geopolitical situation is," added Bechtol, known for his expertise on North Korea issues.
"I wouldn't think that they're trying to do any signaling on that. Now, if they test a ballistic missile, that would probably mean they were trying to send us a signal. But simply testing KN-02, I mean, they do that all the time," he said.
<All rights reserved by Yonhap News Agency>