People watch a TV showing a file picture for a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020.
FILE - People watch a TV showing a file picture for a news report on North Korea firing two unidentified projectiles, in Seoul, South Korea, March 2, 2020.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - North Korea fired three short-range rockets Monday, Pyongyang's second weapons test in a week even as it fights off a potentially disastrous coronavirus outbreak.

The North used multiple rocket launchers to fire the "short-range projectiles" from the eastern town of Sondok in South Hamgyong Province, said South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The weapons flew for about 200 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 50 kilometers, it added.

In a statement, South Korea’s presidential office said the tests do not help peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul said it continues to monitor for additional launches.

Japanese officials said the projectiles appeared to be ballistic missiles and did not fall in Japan's exclusive economic zone.

Medical staff in protective gear take a break at a facility of a 'drive-thru' testing center for the novel coronavirus disease of COVID-19 in Yeungnam University Medical Center in Daegu, South Korea, March 3, 2020.

Mixed messages

North Korea has sent contradictory messages to the outside world over the past week.

Last Monday, North Korea test-fired two short-range ballistic missiles; its first launch since late November. On Tuesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, slammed South Korea’s presidential office as “idiotic.” But on Thursday, Kim Jong Un sent a warm letter expressing what Seoul said was his “unwavering friendship and trust” toward South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The moves -- erratic even by Pyongyang’s standards -- create uncertainty about North Korea’s intentions for 2020.

Coronavirus concerns

North Korea has been trying to protect itself from the coronavirus. Though it has reported no infections, there are concerns Pyongyang is hiding an outbreak that could turn into a humanitarian disaster.

While the coronavirus is likely overwhelming North Korea’s public health system, Kim is nonetheless projecting an image of confidence to both a domestic and international audience, says Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“That the Kim regime conducts these further missile launches suggests it is not just guarding against its own weakness but is looking to exploit weaknesses it perceives among other countries during the coronavirus crisis,” he said.

In last week's surprise letter, Kim sent condolences to South Korea, which has seen a dramatic increase in coronavirus cases since last month. It was the first known contact between the two leaders in months. Some analysts believe Kim’s conciliatory letter signaled Pyongyang seeks economic or virus-related aid. 

“Pyongyang may be seeking international assistance, but remains obsessed with not appearing in an inferior position to Seoul,” says Easley.

This undated picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on March 4, 2020 shows workers disinfecting freight trains to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province.

Similar to last year’s tests

North Korea last year conducted 13 rounds of mostly short-range missile and artillery tests, as nuclear talks with the United States broke down.

Analysts say the North's first two tests of 2020 appear similar to many of last year's launches, which used multiple rocket launch systems.

North Korea appears to be trying to reduce the amount of time it takes to fire successive rockets from the same system.

North Korea is banned from any ballistic missile activity under United Nations Security Council resolutions. But U.S. President Donald Trump says he is not concerned about North Korea’s short-range tests.

Trump has not responded to the latest launches, but last week he said he had “no reaction” to what he called “short-term missiles.”

Bigger launches may be coming. In a New Year’s speech, Kim said he no longer felt bound by his self-imposed suspension on long-range missile and nuclear tests. He also warned the world would soon witness a “new strategic weapon.”