North Korea Fires Two Ballistic Missiles Amid U.S. Drills

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles after it launched four into the sea off its eastern coast last week, escalating tensions as the U.S. and South Korea entered the second week of joint military drills.

The two missiles were fired shortly past 6 a.m. local time today and had a range of at least 500 kilometers (310 miles), South Korea’s Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said at a briefing. He called the launches “a provocative act of saber-rattling.”

The six launches since Feb. 27 coincide with annual U.S.- South Korean military drills that draw thousands of American troops from abroad. They also came ahead of March 9 elections in North Korea, the first parliamentary ballot since leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.

“North Korea needs a military firework to celebrate the start of a new ruling group and rally behind Kim,” Ahn Chan Il, who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies research center in Seoul, said by phone. “The regime is also trying to show it’s they, not the U.S. or South Korea, that are in control of the security situation on the peninsula.”

South Korea’s Hyundai Merchant Marine, the biggest stakeholder in Hyundai Asan, which once operated tours to North Korea, lost as much as 3.4 percent today, its steepest intraday decline since Feb. 27. Authorities are cautiously monitoring the currency market after the missile launch, South Korea’s Finance Minister Hyun Oh Seok told reporters.

UN Sanctions

North Korea is barred from conducting tests of ballistic missiles under resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which tightened its sanctions against the country after the North conducted its third nuclear test more than a year ago.

The U.S.-South Korean drills began Feb. 24, involving both field training and computer simulations aimed at improving combat readiness. North Korea calls the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises a prelude to war while the allies describe them as defensive in nature. A nuclear-powered U.S. submarine arrived in South Korea’s southeastern port city of Busan today to take part in the drills, Yonhap News said, citing a military source it did not identify.

On the starting day of the drills a North Korean naval boat crossed the de facto maritime border with South Korea, returning in the early hours of Feb. 25 after repeated warnings were delivered via radio.

Jailed Missionaries

The North last month rescinded its invitation for a U.S. envoy to travel to Pyongyang to discuss the release of detained missionary Kenneth Bae. Today, the North said through its official Korean Central News Agency that it would release detained Australian missionary John Short, saying he apologized for distributing religious material in Pyongyang in an offense to the country’s sovereignty.

Tensions between the two Koreas eased recently with the first reunions in more than three years of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended without a peace treaty. South Korean President Park Geun Hye on March 1 called on the North to agree to hold reunions on a regular basis to build trust between the two sides.

North Korea also holds a South Korean missionary and convened a news conference last week where he alleged he had worked with the intelligence service in Seoul in a bid to topple the Kim regime. South Korea’s Unification Ministry has urged the North to repatriate the man identified as Kim Jung Wook.

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