North Korea Fires Suspected Cruise Missiles for First Time Since 2017, Ignoring International Protests

North Korea conducted its latest weapons test on Tuesday as aircraft fired what appeared to be cruise missiles into the sea off the country's eastern coast.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) told reporters that the weapons—believed to be surface-to-ship cruise missiles fired by fighter jets flying near the eastern coastal town of Munchon—flew more than 90 miles before splashing into the water, the Yonhap News Agency reported. The test began at around 7 a.m. local time and lasted some 40 minutes.

The JCS noted that North Korean fighter jets also conducted flight tests above the eastern city of Wonsan and fired a variety of air-to-ground missiles off the eastern coast, which also landed in the sea. A JCS statement explained: "The military is closely monitoring the situation for possible additional launches, while maintaining a readiness posture."

If confirmed, the test would be the first known North Korean cruise missile launch since 2017. Pyongyang's cruise missiles are short range and incapable of hitting U.S. territory, but pose a significant threat to U.S., South Korean and allied shipping. The June 2017 test was for the Kumsong-3 coastal defense cruise missile, which is thought to have a range of between 80 and 155 miles.

A JCS officer told reporters, "The projectiles fired today appear to be similar to those fired in June 2017. More analysis is under way by the South Korean and the U.S. intelligence authorities."

The tests come as North Korea prepares to celebrate the 108th birthday of founder Kim Il Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un. The launches also appear timed to coincide with South Korea's general election, which will take place Wednesday.

Tuesday's firings mark the fifth round of tests since the start of this year, four of which took place in March. Kim has maintained such tests over the past year even as denuclearization and sanctions relief talks with the U.S. have floundered. Still, Kim has refrained from testing nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles since the 2018 thaw in relations with Washington and Seoul.

South Korea has criticized Kim for recent tests given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, branding one March launch "inappropriate." North Korea maintains it has recorded no cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but observers are skeptical and have warned that the pandemic could wreak havoc on the North's under-resourced medical system and vulnerable population.

A JCS officer suggested that the recent uptick in Northern weapons tests could be a result of COVID-19. "North Korea has been active in launching military activities recently, which could aim to make up for wintertime drills which had not been fully staged due to the coronavirus," the JCS officer explained, according to Yonhap.

North Korea, missile, test, Kim Jong Un
This file photo shows a man watching a television news broadcast showing file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on April 14, 2020. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty