SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean officials on Thursday criticized a North Korean artillery launch that they say happened minutes before a Chinese commercial plane reportedly carrying 202 people flew in the same area.
It wasn't immediately clear what danger, if any, the launch Tuesday posed to the China Southern Airlines plane traveling from Tokyo to Shenyang, China, but Seoul Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok called it a "serious threat" that Pyongyang failed to notify international aviation authorities of its launch plans in the area.
Kim said the plane was traveling at an altitude of 10 kilometers (6 miles), while the projectile's peak altitude was 20 kilometers (12 miles). He said the flight passed through the area about five minutes after the projectile hit the water.
An unidentified North Korean army spokesman said in a statement Wednesday night that rocket drills conducted from Feb. 21 until Tuesday were part of regular training. He said that neither regional security nor the international navigation were in danger because the North took "scrupulous advance security measures for flight orbit and targets in the designated waters."
Asked about the incident, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman called for all sides to continue improving relations and to refrain from provocations.
Seoul officials say the suspected artillery launch Tuesday and others that included Scud missiles in previous days were protests of ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills that Pyongyang considers invasion preparation. Washington and Seoul say the drills, which prompted threats of nuclear war from the North a year ago, are defensive in nature and meant to deter North Korean aggression.
It was not immediately clear what kind of artillery the North launched. But South Korean officials believe the recent series of launches were in part an effort to test 300-mm multiple rocket launchers, according to the South's Chosun Ilbo. If fired from near the demilitarized zone separating the rival Koreas, the newspaper reported, such rockets could reach the headquarters of the South Korean army, navy and air force.
Despite the recent firings and launches, outside analysts say the North is taking a softer stance toward the U.S.-South Korean military drills this year than last year because it wants better ties with the outside world to revive its struggling economy.
Also Thursday, Seoul said that North Korea rejected Seoul's proposal to hold talks on reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War. South Korea wants to make such reunions, which were held last month for the first time in more than three years, become regular events, but analysts say Pyongyang worries that could take away a key piece of political leverage with the South.
The Korean Peninsula remains officially at war because the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Tension spiked sharply a year ago as North Korea responded furiously to last year's drills and to international condemnation of its third nuclear test in February 2013.