KOREA - North Korea fired five short-range rockets into the East Sea on Thursday in an apparent move to upgrade its rocket capabilities and show off its military presence, Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Three of the rockets were fired shortly before Pope Francis touched down in Seoul to deliver messages of peace and reconciliation.
The North fired the three from its eastern coastal city of Wonsan at 9:30 a.m., 9:40 a.m. and 9:55 a.m. without setting a no-fly/no-sail zone, according to the JCS. The rockets, thought to have been fired from 300 mm-caliber multiple rocket launcher systems, flew some 220 km.
The North fired two additional rockets from Wonsan at 12:56 p.m. and 1:05 p.m. The projectiles flew some 200km.
"We judged that the North launched the rockets both to enhance its rocket capabilities and flaunt its military might. We will continue to remain on high alert to deal with additional rocket launches," said JCS spokesperson Col. Eom Hyo-sik.
In recent months, Pyongyang has apparently been trying to increase the range of its 300 mm multiple rocket launcher system. The maximum range of the system was estimated to be around 190 km. But the rockets flew some 210 km on July 30 and 220 km Thursday.
Seoul's Foreign Ministry said that it was "inappropriate" for the North to have timed their rocket launches to coincide with the arrival of the pontiff.
"The messages that the pope wants to deliver during his visit to Korea would be about peace and reconciliation. It is inappropriate," said ministry spokesperson Noh Kwang-il during a regular briefing. "The North should stop its reckless provocations immediately."
The rocket launches came as Pyongyang called on Seoul to end a set of sanctions imposed on the communist regime and cancel the upcoming South Korea-US joint military exercise to begin later this month.
"The South Korean authorities should remove as soon as possible unreasonable institutional mechanisms blocking the contact, visits, cooperation and exchange between the North and the South," the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
As for the annual drills, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, the North has argued they were a rehearsal for a "nuclear war of invasion." But the allies have argued that the drills were purely defensive in nature.
Seoul's Defence Ministry said it would push ahead with the allied exercise.
"To cope with North Korean threats, we need to maintain our combat capabilities, and to this end, we certainly need the UFG," said ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok during a regular briefing.
The North has fired a total of 107 short-range projectiles into the East Sea over a total of 17 days this year.
The North's demands came as Pope Francis began a landmark five-day trip here Thursday, and the two Koreas are set to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the peninsula's liberation from Japan's 35-year colonial rule on Friday.