As talks on nuclear weapons stalled North Korea fired missiles into waters off its coast Thursday in an apparent test launch.
The launches of an unknown number of short-range missiles, which were confirmed by South Korea's Defense Ministry, were unlikely to ratchet up regional tension as they demonstrated no new threat from the communist North. The country's arsenal includes a variety of missiles, some of which are believed able to reach as far as parts of the United States.
Still, the North has in the past used such actions to signal its impatience with the international community and to make sure that Pyongyang gets the attention it feels it deserves.
"We have intelligence that North Korea fired short-range missiles into the waters off its western coast, and we are trying to confirm how many were fired and what type of missiles they are," a South Korean Defense Ministry official said on customary condition of anonymity.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported the North fired one or two missiles Thursday morning, citing an unnamed intelligence official.
Another intelligence official said North Korea fired two missiles Thursday - one in the morning and one in the afternoon - believed to be "part of routine drills," according to Yonhap.
The missiles were either land-to-ship or ship-to-ship models with a range of less than 100 kilometers (62 miles), and fell into North Korea's territorial waters, the report said.
North Korea became a confirmed nuclear weapons state with its Oct. 9 underground atomic detonation, but experts do not believe it has a bomb design advanced enough to be placed atop a missile.
The missiles were the second barrage fired by the North in two weeks.
On May 25, North Korea fired at least one missile off its eastern coast and intelligence officials said afterward that it was believed to be preparing for more test launches.
However, the U.S. and South Korea downplayed that earlier launch, also saying it was part of routine exercises.
Thursday's launch comes amid the latest deadlock in nuclear talks with the North, which missed a mid-April deadline to shut down its sole operating nuclear reactor under an agreement with the U.S. and other regional powers.
North Korea has refused to act until it receives some US$25 million (EUR18.4 million) in funds that had been frozen in a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia.
The bank has been blacklisted by Washington for alleged complicity in counterfeiting and money laundering by Pyongyang. The U.S. has given its blessing for the money to be freed to win progress on the nuclear standoff, but the North has yet to withdraw it - instead seeking another bank to accept an electronic transfer to prove the funds are now clean.
Other banks have been reluctant to touch the tainted money, and the U.S. has been working to find an institution willing to handle the funds.
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said Thursday that the bank dispute could be resolved before international patience wears out. He indicated that Seoul and its regional partners - the U.S., China, Russia and Japan - were exploring solutions through unspecified "dramatic measures."
Song also expressed regret Thursday that Seoul was not able to immediately send rice aid to North Korea due to the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament.
During high-level talks last week between the Koreas, Seoul delayed a promised shipment of 400,000 tons of rice aid to the North until Pyongyang moves on its reactor shutdown promise.
Saying the delay was "extremely regrettable," Song vowed efforts to create conditions for Seoul to deliver the aid - while reiterating the South will not move forward unless the nuclear deadlock is resolved.
Despite the impasse, the two Koreas opened working-level talks Thursday on a deal for the South to give Pyongyang US$80 million (EUR62 million) worth of raw materials for making clothes, shoes and soap in exchange for rights to develop mineral resources in the North.