(3rd LD) N. Korea fires suspected IRBM into East Sea: S. Korean military

SEOUL, North Korea fired a suspected intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) into the East Sea on Sunday, South Korea's military said, in Pyongyang's first missile launch this year amid heightened tensions over its continued saber-rattling. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said it detected the launch from an area in or around Pyongyang at about 2:55 p.m. and the missile flew around 1,000 kilometers before splashing into the sea. The JCS strongly condemned the launch, calling it a "clear provocative act," adding that it shared data on the North Korean missile with U.S. and Japanese authorities, with an analysis on its specifications under way. "Under a firm South Korea-U.S. combined defense posture, our military will closely monitor North Korea's various activities and maintain capabilities and readiness to overwhelmingly respond to any provocation," it said. Last month, Seoul, Washington and Tokyo fully activated a system to share North Korean missile warning data in real-time in an effort to bolster trilateral cooperation against the North's evolving military threats. In an interview with Yonhap News Agency last week, South Korea's Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said the North could test-fire a new type of IRBM as early as this month after the country said it staged solid-fuel engine tests for a new IRBM in November. Seoul officials believe Pyongyang's solid-fuel IRBM under development is capable of targeting U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam. IRBMs have a range of up to 5,500 km. Solid-fuel missiles are known to be harder to detect ahead of launch than liquid-fuel ones that require more preparations, such as the injection of fuel. The North has recently pressed ahead with its missile development program, firing a Hwasong-18 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile at a lofted trajectory into the East Sea on Dec. 18. The latest launch took place amid heightened tensions after North Korea fired artillery shells near the inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea from Jan. 5 to 7. The fir ing prompted the South to stage live-fire drills from its northwestern border islands of Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong for the first time in over six years. Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said he has no intention of avoiding war with South Korea, and threatened to annihilate the South if it attempts to use force against the North. South Korean officials have said the North is likely to stage provocative acts early this year and escalate tensions ahead of South Korea's general elections in April. The launch also came just before North Korean state media said its Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui will visit Russia from Monday through Wednesday in the latest sign of growing bilateral ties. Seoul and Washington have accused Pyongyang of delivering arms to Moscow after the North's leader Kim Jong-un traveled to Russia's Far East in September for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Source: Yonhap News Agency