SEOUL: North Korea fired two medium-range ballistic missiles on Sunday (Dec 18), Seoul's military said, days after Pyongyang announced a successful test of a solid-fuel motor for a new weapons system.
Military tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen sharply this year as Pyongyang has carried out an unprecedented blitz of weapons tests, including the launch of its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile ever last month.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected two medium-range ballistic missiles that had been fired from the Tongchang-ri area in North Pyongan province.
The missiles were fired from 11.13am (0213 GMT) to 12:05 pm into the East Sea, it said, referring to the body of water also known as the Sea of Japan.
They were fired on a "lofted" trajectory and flew around 500km, JCS said in a statement, adding South Korean and United States intelligence were analysing the launch "in consideration of recent trends related to North Korea's missile development".
Early Monday, North Korean state media said it had conducted an "important final-stage test for the development of (a) reconnaissance satellite" at the Sohae Satellite Launch Ground, which is located in Tongchang-ri.
The North tested a "high-thrust solid-fuel motor" at Sohae on Thursday, with state media describing it as an important test "for the development of another new-type strategic weapon system".
"Given that the missiles launched today are medium-range ballistic missiles, it is assessed to be test-firings of a new ballistic missile equipped with the solid-fuel engine tested on Dec 15," said Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute.
The South's military "strongly" condemned Sunday's launch, calling it a "serious provocation" and a "clear violation" of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
"Our military will maintain a firm readiness posture based on the ability to carry out an overwhelming response to any provocations by North Korea," it added.
KIM'S WISH LIST
Despite heavy international sanctions over its weapons programmes, Pyongyang has built up an arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
All its known ICBMs are liquid-fuelled, however, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has placed strategic priority on developing solid-fuel engines for more advanced missiles.
Liquid-fuel rockets are notoriously difficult to operate and take a long time to prepare for launch, making them slower and easier for the enemy to spot and destroy.
The more mobile solid-fuel missiles have a much shorter prep time, and are harder to detect before launch.
A wish list Kim revealed last year included solid-fuel ICBMs that could be launched from land or submarines.
The latest motor test was a step towards that goal, but it is not clear how far North Korea has come in the development of such a missile, analysts said.
KEY PARTY MEETING
The isolated country's policy direction for next year will be laid out at a key party meeting later this month, and the official Korean Central News Agency earlier reported Kim saying that 2023 would be a "historic year".
In past years, Kim had delivered a speech every Jan 1, but he recently dropped the tradition in favour of making announcements at the year-end plenary meeting.
In his most recent address to the meeting, which was released to the public last New Year's Day, Kim focused on domestic affairs.
Experts say while Kim refrained from directly addressing the United States last year, he could change his tone this time around.
Kim said this year that he wants the North to have the world's most powerful nuclear force, and declared his country an "irreversible" nuclear state.
The US and South Korea have warned for months that Pyongyang is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test.
North Korea is under multiple UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear and missile activity since 2006.