TOKYO North Korea fired several short-range missiles on Friday morning, even as the United States sounded optimistic about getting six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear arms programme back on track.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe downplayed the missile firing's significance, while South Korea's National Intelligence Service, the country's spy agency, said the launches were part of an annual military drill.
"I do not consider it as a grave issue for Japan's security," Abe told reporters, adding that he wanted North Korea to adhere to the six-party agreement.
Under a February deal reached at the six-party talks, Pyongyang agreed to begin work to scrap its nuclear weapons programme, but has demanded formerly frozen funds in a Macau bank be transferred to North Korea first.
The $25 million at Banco Delta Asia was blocked after the United States blacklisted the bank, accusing it of laundering illicit North Korean funds.
Japan's NHK television said the missiles, fired from both the east and west coasts of North Korea, were surface-to-ship types.
"If they were fired towards the Sea of Japan, it may be a sign that they are unhappy that the Banco Delta Asia funds are not being transferred," Toshimitsu Shigemura, professor at Waseda University, told Nippon Television, referring to the funds issue.
"Last time, the missiles were long-range, but this time they are short-range, which may mean they don't intend to surprise too much. They only want to attract attention."
Pyongyang fired a salvo of missiles in July last year which included one long-range missile and several short-range missiles.
Earlier on Friday, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea's nuclear issue said Washington was hopeful North Korea would meet a commitment to shut down its nuclear facilities this month after it receives the frozen funds.
SOFT U.S. POSITION
"I do believe the DPRK (North Korea) continues to signal to us privately and publicly, and most recently last night, that as soon as the banking matter is resolved, they will move quickly to implement their part of the deal," U.S. assistant secretary of state Christopher Hill said.
"I am expecting it very soon. I expected that last month and hopefully we can get that done this month," said Hill, who was in Manila for preparatory meetings for an August summit of Asia's largest security bloc.
Some analysts questioned why North Korea would take tough action in light of such U.S. comments.
"The United States has softened its stance, and therefore it's hard to understand why North Korea threatened with missile launches this time," said Noriyuki Suzuki, chief analyst at the Tokyo-based Radiopress news agency, which specializes in monitoring North Korea media.
"It is not the time when North Korea should try to secure concessions," he said.
South Korea, which earlier on Friday launched its first destroyer equipped with the high-tech Aegis weapons system for shooting down enemy missiles and aircraft, also downplayed the impact of the missile launch.
"The mood is this won't affect the six-party talks," a South Korean foreign ministry official said.
However, Park Young-ho, a specialist at the South's Korea Institute for National Unification, said the incident could be a bit of saber rattling.
"We could think of this missile test as a way of North Korea showing off its missile capability," Park said.
The South Korean destroyer, named King Sejong and built at a cost of about 1 trillion won ($1.07 billion), will be the country's most advanced ship to counter a possible attack from North Korea, which has hundreds of ballistic missiles.
Seoul plans to launch two more Aegis-equipped destroyers by 2013.
(Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno and Chisa Fujioka in TOKYO, Jack Kim in SEOUL, and Manny Mogato in MANILA)