North Korea test-fired suspected artillery pieces into the sea on Sunday, South Korea’s military said, days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for greater defence capability to cope with outside threats.
The shots were fired between 8.07am and 11.03am local time. The joint chiefs of staff gave no other details, but added it had decided to issue a statement late in the evening as the shots were of a traditional type, with relatively short range and low altitude.
During a national security council meeting convened to discuss the suspected launches, South Korean officials expressed concern that North Korea is upgrading weapons systems that pose a direct threat to South Korea. They added that they would sternly deal with such efforts, South Korea’s presidential office said.
The North’s artillery tests draw less outside attention than its missile launches. But its forward-deployed, long-range artillery guns are considered a serious security threat to South Korea’s populous metropolitan region, which is only 40-50 kilometres from the border with North Korea.
The suspected artillery launches were the latest in a spate of weapons tests by North Korea this year. Foreign experts say they are an attempt to pressure North Korea's rivals, Washington and Seoul, to relax international sanctions against Pyongyang and make other concessions.
South Korean and US officials recently said North Korea had almost completed preparations for its first nuclear test in about five years. In March, North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland US in breach of a 2018 moratorium on big missile tests.
In a speech at a ruling party meeting last week, Mr Kim underscored the need to strengthen his country’s military capability, saying the current security environment is “very serious.”
Mr Kim’s speech carried by state media did not mention the US or South Korea. But he still set forth “militant tasks” to be pursued by his armed forces and scientists, a suggestion that he would press ahead with his high-profile arms build-up plans.
A possible new nuclear test by North Korea would be the seventh such operation. Some experts say North Korea will likely use the test to build warheads to be mounted on tactical nuclear weapons aimed at hitting targets in South Korea.