North Korea Fires Missiles After Recent Easing of Tensions

North Korea fired four short-range missiles, the first confirmed launch in more than nine months, disrupting a period of easing tensions with the South.

The missiles were fired into the sea from North Korea’s east coast shortly before 6 p.m. local time yesterday, and had a range of at least 200 kilometers (124 miles), South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.

The launches came just two days after the countries wrapped up the first reunions in more than three years of families divided by the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended without a peace treaty. Still, the North has denounced the U.S.-South Korean drills that began this week as a rehearsal for a war, and the annual exercises previously prompted angry reactions from Kim Jong Un’s regime.

South Korea considers the launches a provocation timed to take place after the reunions, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said today at a briefing. The missiles were the first Scuds to be fired by the North since 2009, he said. Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui Do at a separate briefing said he hoped the launches wouldn’t affect ties with the North.

“North Korea is keeping its head up in the face of the South Korean-U.S. drills,” Sohn Yong Woo, a professor of North Korean studies at the Graduate School of National Defense Strategy of Hannam University in the South, said by phone. “The short ones aren’t as provocative as mid- or long-range missiles and probably aren’t intended to upset the growing mood for dialogue.”

Earlier this month, the two Koreas held their first high-level talks in more than six years and agreed to have more discussions, contrasting with tensions that soared a year ago when the North conducted its third atomic test.

‘Exercise Restraint’

Following that blast, the United Nations Security Council tightened its sanctions against the North. The country then threatened war as the U.S. and South Korea conducted their Key Resolve and Foal Eagle drills, which the allies call defensive in nature.

The two sets of drills this year will draw thousands of U.S. troops from abroad, ending on March 6 and April 18, respectively, according to U.S. Forces Korea. The U.S. maintains 28,500 troops in South Korea to help rebuff any attack from the North.

“No issue that poses a direct impact on Japan’s national security has arisen at this point in time,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo today in response to a question on the missile launch.

The U.S. is monitoring the situation closely, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday in Washington. “We continue, as we often do, to urge North Korea to exercise restraint and take steps to improve its relations with its neighbors,” she said.

Naval Incursion

The last confirmed launch of short-range missiles by the North occurred in May, with the regime testing six of them in a period of three days in defiance of global sanctions. The North said at the time it was exercising its right to test-fire rockets as part of regular military drills.

South Korea’s defense ministry said it is still analyzing why North Korea launched the missiles. Broadcaster YTN reported the North also fired a short-range missile on Feb. 21, citing an unnamed intelligence official.

Among South Korean defense-related stocks, Speco Co., a maker of defense products such as fin stabilizers and water jets, added 2.1 percent after rising as much as 5.8 percent, while electronics warfare equipment maker Victek Co was 1.8 percent higher, having gained 4.2 percent earlier.

South Korea previously said a North Korean naval boat crossed the disputed Yellow Sea boundary on Feb. 24, turning back after the South issued a series of warning messages via radio.

‘Utter Intimidation’

South Korea yesterday called for the release of a citizen detained in the North, after he held a press conference. The Associated Press said the man was a Christian missionary held by the North for more than four months. North Korea is also detaining Australian John Short and American Kenneth Bae, both missionaries.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, issuing an annual departmental report yesterday on human rights, said a recent UN inquiry found compelling evidence of torture in North Korea, such as the use of anti-aircraft weapons on people “that literally obliterate human beings.”

The human rights violations against North Korean citizens are “a form of gross and utter intimidation and oppression,” he told reporters at a briefing.

“Countries that deny human rights and human dignity challenge our interests, as well as human interests,” Kerry said.

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