, SEOUL, Jul 3 – North Korea may fire further missiles after testing four of the weapons within four hours, according to South Korea’s military and media reports.
The launches on Thursday evening further fuelled regional tensions following a May nuclear test by the hardline communist regime. The United States, Japan and Australia blasted the exercise as provocative.
"Rain or shine, we’re watching the North 24 hours a day," a public affairs official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff told AFP.
While the North could launch short-range missiles any time it chooses, he said, officials were more interested in whether it is also preparing to test medium or long-ranges missiles.
An unidentified military official quoted by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said Thursday’s launches — believed to be ground-to-ship missiles — were thought to be for military training.
But the North could follow up with mid-range or more short-range missiles, the official said.
In addition to ballistic missile tests in 2006 and April this year, the North has fired numerous short-range missiles in recent years — often timing the tests to stoke political tensions.
Thursday’s launches came hours after talks between the two Koreas on the fate of their joint industrial park at Kaesong ended without agreement.
Defence ministry spokesman Won Tae-Jae said the North appeared to be trying to stage a provocation against South Korea.
Cross-border relations have been icy for over a year, since Seoul’s new conservative government took a firmer line with Pyongyang. The South’s military is on alert along the land and sea frontier.
"We believe the firing was conducted with regard to the (inter-Korean) relations," Won was quoted by Yonhap news agency as saying.
"Unless it is a mid-range missile or a longer-range one, we believe it is aimed at South Korea."
Won said media reports that the North may test-launch a mid or long-range missile around July 4 — US Independence Day — are "only speculation".
US defence officials said in early June the North appeared to have transported a long-range missile to a new base in the west. But there have been no recent reports of launch preparations there.
Thursday’s missiles reportedly landed about 100 kilometres (62 miles) off the coast, where the North has imposed a maritime ban until July 11.
It was the first military gesture the North has made since the United Nations on June 12 imposed tougher sanctions following the nuclear test.
The North has made a series of bellicose moves this year. A long-range rocket launch on April 5 was followed by the nuclear test — the second since 2006 — on May 25.
In the days after its atomic test, Pyongyang fired a total of six short-range missiles, renounced the truce in force on the Korean peninsula for half a century and threatened possible attacks on Seoul.
When the United Nations tightened sanctions on its missile and atomic activities, the North vowed to build more nuclear bombs.
US and South Korean officials believe ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, is staging a show of strength to bolster his authority as he tries to put in place a succession plan involving his youngest son Jong-Un.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said "provocative actions" were expected to continue but the North was beginning to feel the effect of the sanctions.
"It is clear sanctions are having an impact," Gibbs said, citing cooperation from Russia and China.
He also suggested the North was beginning to respond to the pressure but did not elaborate.
"Obviously, there have been positive developments over the past few days as it relates to the actions of the North Koreans," Gibbs said.
At Ganghwa island, just south of the inter-Korean border, some 20 North Korean defectors floated 10 huge balloons carrying 100,000 leaflets across the frontier.
"Execute Kim Jong-Il," read a slogan painted on one giant balloon.