, SEOUL, Jul 4 – North Korea test-fired four ballistic missiles Saturday, on the eve of US Independence Day celebrations, South Korean officials said, further fuelling regional tensions amid its nuclear standoff.
Seoul’s foreign ministry said all four of the weapons launched into the Sea of Japan (East Sea) were ballistic missiles, which the North is banned from firing under UN Security Council resolutions.
It was the first time in three years that the communist state fired multiple ballistic missiles.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missiles had a range of between 400 and 500 km (250-312 miles) but declined to say what type they were.
Yonhap news agency said they were either Scuds, or Rodong-1 missiles whose range of 1,000-1,300 km had been shortened.
The North on Thursday test-fired four short-range missiles with a range of 120 km into the Sea of Japan.
The latest launches, between 8 am (2300 GMT Friday) and noon, were seen as more provocative since the missiles could potentially reach most of South Korea, and possibly parts of Japan.
"The military, on the basis of a strong joint defence alliance with the United States, is fully prepared to fend off any threats or provocations by the North," the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
The foreign ministry said the missiles were fired from a site at Kitdaeryong on the North’s southeast coast.
It said the "provocative act… clearly violates" three UN Security Council resolutions, including the latest one in June which toughened weapons-related sanctions on the North in response to its May 25 nuclear test.
"The government expresses deep regret over North Korea’s continued acts to escalate tensions in Northeast Asia in ignorance of the UN Security Council resolutions and urges North Korea to faithfully implement the resolutions," it added in a statement.
"The Scuds fired today impose a greater security threat to us because of their longer ranges," one government official was quoted as saying by Yonhap.
"Thursday’s missile tests were apparently made as part of a military drill but today’s launches, which came on the eve of the US Independence Day, are believed to be aimed at political purposes."
Japan condemned the launches.
"It is a serious act of provocation against the security of neighbouring countries, including our country," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said.
Analysts said the North was flexing its military muscle amid the tough international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Baek Seung-Joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses said the North test-fires missiles three to four times each year to improve technology and maintain missile exports.
"Today’s launches were part of a usual military drill but by firing 500 km-range Scuds, the North was clearly displaying its ability to strike back against any international sanctions involving military means," Baek told AFP.
He said, however, that there is no sign of the North preparing to fire another long-range missile.
The North has made a series of bellicose moves this year. A long-range rocket launch on April 5 was followed by a 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 on June 12 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, Kim Jong-Un.
North Korea test-fired a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, along with several short- and mid-range missiles, on US Independence Day in 2006. Its latest nuclear test coincided with the US Memorial Day holiday.