North Korea fired several cruise missiles towards its western sea on Saturday, South Korea’s military said, marking the second launch event this week apparently in protest of the docking of a nuclear-armed US submarine in South Korea.
While adding to its barrage of missile launches in recent months, North Korea remained publicly silent for a fifth day on the fate of an American soldier who bolted into the North across the heavily armed Korean border this week.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the launches were detected but did not immediately report how many missiles were fired or how far they flew. It said the US and South Korean militaries were closely analysing the launches.
North Korea in recent years has been testing newly developed cruise missiles it describes as “strategic,” implying an intent to arm them with nuclear weapons.
Experts say the main mission of those weapons would include striking naval assets and ports.
Designed to fly like small aeroplanes and travel along landscape that would make them harder to detect by radar, cruise missiles are among a growing collection of North Korean weapons aimed at overwhelming missile defences in the South.
On Wednesday, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles from an area near its capital, Pyongyang. They flew about 550 kilometres before landing in waters east of the Korean Peninsula.
The flight distance of those missiles roughly matched the distance between Pyongyang and the South Korean port city of Busan, where the USS Kentucky on Tuesday made the first visit by a US nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea since the 1980s.
The Kentucky's arrival came on the same day when the American soldier, Pvt Travis King, sprinted across the border into North Korea while on a tour of an inter-Korean truce village.
North Korea’s state media has yet to comment on Mr King and the country has not responded to US requests to clarify where he is being kept and what his condition is. US officials have expressed concern about Mr King’s well-being, considering North Korea’s previous rough treatment of some American detainees.
It could be weeks, or even months, before North Korea releases meaningful information about King, analysts say, as the country could drag out his detention to maximise leverage and add urgency to US efforts to secure his release.
Some experts say the North may try to use King for propaganda or as a bargaining chip to coax political and security concessions from Washington, possibly tying his release with the US cutting back its military activities with South Korea.