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N. Korea Issues Navigational Warning Amid Fears of Weapons Test: Reports

People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program, March 25, 2021, at the Suseo Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea.

North Korea declared a no-sail zone for ships off its east coast earlier this week, suggesting it may have been planning a missile launch or other weapons test that apparently never occurred, according to South Korean reports.

The warning was issued for Sunday through Monday in the northeastern regions of the sea off North Korea’s east coast, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Thursday, quoting unnamed military sources.

“Such an advisory is usually issued ahead of missile launches or other weapons tests to warn vessels to stay clear of certain areas expected to be affected,” the news agency reported.

“But no actual ballistic missile launches or artillery firings took place during the period, according to officials at Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff,” it added.

South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo newspaper also reported North Korea issued the navigational warning, adding Pyongyang may have attempted missile launches Sunday. It offered no other details.

VOA has not obtained confirmation of any warning or possible launch attempt. A spokesperson for South Korea’s National Defense Ministry provided a written statement to VOA that North Korea is conducting summer military training. “South Korean and U.S. intelligence are closely monitoring the situation,” the statement read.

Tensions, drills

Senior North Korean military general Kim Yong Chol last week warned of a “huge security crisis” after the U.S. and South Korea announced they would move ahead with annual summer military drills.

Pyongyang sees the exercises as a provocation and often uses them as an occasion to conduct its own weapons tests or issue verbal threats. This year, North Korea appeared to use the exercises to increase pressure on South Korea.

People watch a TV showing an image of North Korea's new guided missile during a news program at the Suseo Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday. March 26, 2021.
People watch a TV showing an image of North Korea's new guided missile during a news program at the Suseo Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday. March 26, 2021.

Weeks before the U.S.-South Korea drills, North Korea announced it was reopening several inter-Korean hotlines, in what both sides called the first step toward improved relations. Around the time the drills began, though, North Korea stopped answering the hotlines.

South Korea’s left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in, frequently speaks of his desire to leave a legacy of peace with North Korea. Moon is running out of time to do so; his single, five-year term ends in May.

Provocations coming?

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service recently said it expects North Korea could soon test a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Others speculate Pyongyang may prefer a less provocative launch, possibly involving a short-range missile or artillery.

This week’s navigational warning may suggest the North is preparing a major test, according to some observers.

“I recall [North Korea] issuing similar notices ahead of satellite launch attempts in years gone by, but not ahead of regular ballistic missile testing,” tweeted Chad O’Carroll, founder of NK News website.

Pyongyang’s warning could also be a false alarm, warned Martyn Williams, a North Korea-focused fellow at the U.S.-based Stimson Center.

“It could also be that the warning was just intended to stir the pot. The U.S. and South Korea are running an exercise now and [North Korea] is not happy about it,” he tweeted.