North Korea: rocket firing not timed to coincide with papal visit to South

SEOUL Fri Aug 15, 2014 1:59am EDT

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (4th R) visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to pay tribute to founding President Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il to mark the 61st anniversary of the victory of the Korean people in the Fatherland Liberation War, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 27, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (4th R) visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to pay tribute to founding President Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il to mark the 61st anniversary of the victory of the Korean people in the Fatherland Liberation War, in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 27, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/KCNA

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Friday its firing of three short-range rockets shortly before Pope Francis arrived in the South Korean capital the previous day had nothing to do with the papal visit.

The rockets were fired from multiple launchers in the North Korean port city of Wonsan and travelled 220 km (135 miles) before landing in waters east of the Korean peninsula, a South Korean defence ministry official said on Thursday.

The last rocket was fired 35 minutes before Pope Francis was due to arrive at an air base in Seoul, where the pontiff started a five-day visit to South Korea, his first visit to Asia.

The test site was hundreds of kilometres (miles) away from the pope's plane. North Korea fired two more projectiles from the same location later on Thursday.

It is "absurd" to link the timing of the rocket firing with the pope's visit to South Korea, the North's official KCNA news agency quoted Kim In Yong, research director at the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, as saying.

"The test firing of ultra-precision high-performance tactical rockets was conducted on the scheduled day and time along with our plan to strengthen our self defensive power," Kim said.

Isolated North Korea rarely responds directly to international media coverage of its activities.

"Our scientists do not know what the pope has done for the people of the world, and especially for our nation, and we don't feel any necessity to know about it. And we don't know and are not interested in the purpose of his visit to Korea."

The launches preceded the start of U.S.-South Korean military exercises set for Monday. Seoul and Washington say the exercises are defensive in nature but North Korea regularly protests against what it sees as a rehearsal for war.

In Friday's statement, Kim said the South should call off the drills in order to promote a peaceful atmosphere ahead of the Asian Games, set for next month in Incheon, South Korea.

North Korea last fired short-range rockets in late July but has since said repeatedly that the launches are specifically designed as counter measures against those drills.

"Given that the U.S. and the puppet forces of South Korea continue staging nuclear war exercises against us in particular, we will take countermeasures for self-defence which will include missile launches, nuclear tests and all other programmes," a statement carried by North Korean state media last Friday said.

Pyongyang is under heavy U.N. and U.S. sanctions related to its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Short-range rockets do not defy the ban, but Pyongyang has in recent months changed its propaganda style to include photographs of leader Kim Jong Un personally supervising the launches.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department said the United States was assessing whether the rocket firings were in violation of sanctions.

Marie Harf said Washington had yet to determine what type of projectiles had been fired, but said North Korea failed to follow international procedures by giving prior notification to ships and aircraft.

"We continue to call upon North Korea to refrain from taking such provocative actions," she told a regular news briefing.

(Additional reporting by Kahyun Yang and James Pearson in Seoul and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait, Tom Brown and Clarence Fernandez)

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