The launches could underscore North Korea’s determination to continue its efforts to expand its arsenal despite the virus outbreak, gain support behind its leader, Kim Jong Un, and continue to put pressure on its rivals amid a long-simmering nuclear diplomacy.
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a statement that the three missiles launched Thursday afternoon from the north’s capital were headed for waters off the country’s eastern coast.
It said the South Korean military has stepped up its preparedness and surveillance while working closely with the United States.
Japan has also detected the North Korean launches.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has ordered officials to do their utmost to analyze the launch, ensure the safety of aircraft and vessels in the area and take precautions and be ready for any emergencies, his office said.
The Japanese coast guard said a possible ballistic missile from North Korea may have landed at sea. It urged ships around Japan’s coasts to watch out for falling objects and report them to authorities.
Earlier Thursday, North Korean state media confirmed the country’s first COVID-19 infections when Kim ordered nationwide lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. Kim also ordered officials to bolster the country’s defense position to avoid a security vacuum.
In recent months, North Korea has tested a series of missiles in what experts call an effort to modernize its weapons and pressure the United States and its allies to accept it as a nuclear state and relax sanctions against the north. . Some observers say North Korea, despite increased anti-virus measures, would likely continue its weapons tests to try to boost public morale at home and strengthen loyalty to Kim’s leadership.
Thursday’s launches were the North’s first weapons since the inauguration of new conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday. Yoon’s office said his national security adviser Kim Sung-han was planning a meeting to discuss the launches.
North Korea has a history of rattling new governments in Seoul and Washington in an apparent effort to bolster its negotiating chips in future negotiations. The North Korean nuclear threat will likely be at the top of the agenda when Yoon visits US President Joe Biden in Seoul next week.
The North Korean weapons tested recently include a variety of nuclear-capable missiles that could potentially reach South Korea, Japan or the mainland US
On Saturday, South Korea discovered a ballistic missile launch by North Korea, likely from a submarine, during its first underwater weapons test since October last year. There are also signs that the north is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test in nearly five years at a remote test site in the northeast.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.