SEOUL (AFP, REUTERS) - Nuclear-armed North Korea on Monday (March 9) fired what Japan said appeared to be ballistic missiles, a week after a similar weapons test by Pyongyang.
Analysts say the North has been continuing to refine its weapons capabilities during its long-stalled nuclear discussions with the US, which have been at a standstill since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump more than a year ago.
The North "appeared to have carried out joint firing drills involving various types of multiple rocket launchers", the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, expressing "strong regret" over Pyongyang's actions. Initially they said three projectiles were involved, before changing the description to "multiple".
The devices were fired northeastwards into the sea from South Hamgyong province and flew 200km at a maximum altitude of 50km, the JCS said.
That was slightly shorter but also slightly higher than last Monday's firing.
A Japanese defence ministry spokesman said North Korea had launched what appeared to be "ballistic missile(s)" - which it is banned from doing under UN Security Council resolutions.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament: "Repeated launches of items such as ballistic missiles have been a serious issue for the international community, including our country."
In an emergency meeting, South Korea's security ministers said the North's continued firing drills were "not helpful" to efforts for lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.
Three projectiles fired successfully from a single Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) would be "a new milestone" for the North's short-range ballistic missile programme, tweeted Mr Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
Prof Vipin Narang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology added: "Kim continues to test, improve, and operationalise his force."
After last week's launch the North's state media said Mr Kim had overseen a "long-range artillery" drill, carrying images of multiple launch rocket systems and several of a larger calibre rocket being fired in a forest.
The South's military had said that launch appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles.
China's foreign ministry, asked about North Korea's launch of projectiles, says it calls on all parties to adhere to consultation and dialogue to achieve lasting peace in the Korean peninsula. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang made the comments at a daily press briefing on Monday.
Monday's firing came days after Mr Kim sent a personal letter to the South's President Moon Jae-in, offering "comfort" for the rapid outbreak of the new coronavirus in the country.
South Korea has one of the world's largest infection totals outside China with more than 7,300, while Pyongyang insists it has not had a single case.
That message had followed an unprecedented statement by Mr Kim's younger sister Yo Jong, berating Seoul's "truly senseless" and "perfectly foolish" condemnation of Pyongyang's weapons test last week.
The North carried out a series of weapons tests late last year, the last of them in November, which it often described as multiple launch rocket systems although others called them ballistic missiles.
It also conducted static engine tests, most recently in December.
Pyongyang set Washington a unilateral deadline of the end of 2019 to offer it fresh concessions on sanctions relief, and at a party meeting in late December Mr Kim declared the North no longer considered itself bound by its moratoriums on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
He also threatened a demonstration of a "new strategic weapon" soon.
Pyongyang is under multiple sets of sanctions over its weapons programmes from the United Nations Security Council, US, South Korea and others.
Heightened tensions in 2017 were followed by two years of nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington, including three meetings between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump, but little tangible progress was made.