The launches could emphasize North Korea’s determination to rally support behind leader Kim Jong Un and move forward with efforts to expand its arsenal despite the virus outbreak to keep pressure on its rivals in the long-dormant nuclear diplomacy.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that three missiles fired from the North Korean capital on Thursday afternoon flew into waters off the country’s east coast.
It said South Korea’s military had increased its readiness and surveillance by maintaining close coordination with the United States.
Japan has also identified a North Korean launch.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has instructed officials to analyze the launch, ensure the safety of aircraft and ships in the area, and be alert and prepared for any possible emergency.
Japan’s coast guard says a possible North Korean ballistic missile is believed to have fallen into the sea. It called on ships off the coast of Japan to keep an eye on falling objects and report to authorities.
Earlier on Thursday, North Korean state media confirmed the country’s first COVID-19 infection because Kim had ordered a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. Kim has instructed officials to strengthen the country’s defenses to avoid a security vacuum.
In recent months, North Korea has tested a number of missiles, which experts say are an attempt to modernize its weapons and pressure the United States and its allies to accept it as a nuclear state and ease sanctions on the North. Some observers say that despite advanced anti-virus measures, North Korea will likely continue to test its weapons at home to boost public morale and strengthen allegiance to Kim’s leadership.
Thursday’s launches were the North’s first weapons since the inauguration of the new conservative South Korean president, Eun Sook Eo, on Tuesday. The UN office said its national security adviser, Kim Sung-han, was planning to convene a meeting to discuss the launch.
North Korea has a history of pushing for new governments in Seoul and Washington to strengthen its bargaining chips in future talks. The North Korean nuclear threat is likely to be high on the agenda when Eun meets with visiting US President Joe Biden in Seoul next week.
North Korea’s recently tested weapons include a variety of nuclear-capable missiles that could potentially reach South Korea, Japan or the United States.
Last Saturday, South Korea detected the launch of a North Korean ballistic missile from a submarine in its first underwater weapons test since last October. There are also indications that the North is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test in about five years at a remote test site northeast.
Marie Yamaguchi, an Associated Press writer in Tokyo, contributed to this report.