(Recasts, adds statement from North Korean official, details)
By Sohee Kim and Tony Munroe
SEOUL Aug 15 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
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)