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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea fires 3 missiles, ending unprecedented year of tests

Short-range ballistic weapons fired east toward sea from south of Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Political Bureau of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang in this photo released on Dec. 31 by the official Korean Central News Agency.   © Reuters

SEOUL (Reuters) -- North Korea fired three ballistic missiles toward the sea east of the Korean Peninsula on Saturday, the South Korean military said.

The launches were the latest in an unprecedented number of missile tests conducted by North Korea this year as Pyongyang presses on with weapons development amid speculation it could test a nuclear weapon for a seventh time.

The three short-range ballistic missiles were fired starting around 8 a.m. local time (23:00 GMT) from North Hwanghae province, just south of the capital, Pyongyang, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Japan's coast guard said North Korea fired what could be a ballistic missile and sent notice about a second possible missile. NHK reported that a second North Korean missile appeared to have landed outside Japan's exclusive economic zone.

North Korea fired the missile the day after South Korea's Defense Ministry announced it had successfully conducted a test flight of a solid-propellant space launch vehicle.

On Monday, five North Korean drones crossed into South Korea, prompting the South's military to scramble fighter jets and attack helicopters to try to shoot them down, in the first such intrusion since 2017.

Relations between North Korea and U.S. ally South Korea have grown even more tense since South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol's conservative government took over in May, promising a tougher stance toward the North.

Not counting Saturday's launches, North Korea has fired around 70 ballistic missiles this year, Yonhap news agency said, including about eight intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

North Korean state media KCNA had yet to make any mention of the firing, but said on Saturday that leader Kim Jong Un had presided over a party meeting on Friday to decide policy and strategy for 2023.

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