SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast on Wednesday, U.S. and South Korean officials said, amid worries that the North might soon conduct banned nuclear or long-range rocket tests.
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The firing was also made as North Korea expressed anger over annual military drills between the United States and South Korea that North Korea sees as an invasion rehearsal.
The U.S. Pacific Command said it detected and tracked what it assessed as North Korean missile launched from land near the eastern city of Sinpo. A U.S. statement said initial assessments indicate the type of missile was a KN-15 medium-range ballistic missile. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a similar assessment, saying the missile flew about 60 kilometers (37 miles).
That is a much shorter distance than other North Korean missiles flew in their recent test-launches.
Two weeks ago, the South Korean and U.S. militaries said they had detected a failed North Korean ballistic missile launch. South Korean media speculated at the time that North Korea might have attempted to test a missile that it hasn't deployed. Earlier in March, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles that flew about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), with three of them landing in waters that Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone.
The North's latest launch came as outside satellite imagery show possible preparations for a new nuclear test at the North's main nuclear test site, such as communication cables used to initiate a test and collect data being already laid. North Korea's state media has also said the world will soon witness what it calls "eventful successes" the country achieves in the space development.
Washington, Seoul and others call the North's space program a cover for its long-range missile development program.
North Korea is pushing hard to upgrade its weapons systems to cope with what it calls U.S. hostility. Many weapons experts say the North could have a functioning nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. within a few years. North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year.
North Korea also often responds to U.S.-South Korean military drills with its own military training and harsh rhetoric. The allies say the drills set to run until the end of this month are defensive in nature.