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North Korea fires 3 ballistic missiles toward sea

This photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what it says is a test-fire of a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), at an undisclosed location in North Korea, on March 24, 2022. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is pictured at the congress of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang. (Mainichi KCNA)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea says North Korea has fired a total of three short-range ballistic missiles toward the sea.

    South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff says the three missiles launched from the North's capital region on Thursday afternoon flew toward the waters off the country's eastern coast.

    The launches came just hours after North Korea confirmed its first case of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.

    They could underscore North Korea's determination to press ahead with its efforts to expand its arsenal despite the virus outbreak to rally support behind the leader, Kim Jong Un, and keep up pressure on its rivals amid long-dormant nuclear diplomacy.

    THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story is below:

    North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile toward the sea on Thursday, South Korea and Japan said, in the latest of a series of weapons demonstrations this years and just hours after it confirmed its first case of the coronavirus since the pandemic began.

    Japan's Defense Ministry said the projectile fired by North Korea was a possible ballistic missile. It gave no other details.

    South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a brief statement that the missile flew toward North Korea's eastern waters. It also gave no details.

    Earlier Thursday, North Korean state media confirmed the country's first COVID-19 infections as leader Kim Jong Un ordered nationwide lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. Kim also ordered officials to bolster the country's defense posture to avoid any security vacuum.

    North Korea has test-launched a spate of missiles this year in an apparent attempt to put pressure on its rivals amid stalled nuclear diplomacy. Some experts say that despite the elevated anti-virus steps, North Korea would likely continue its weapons tests to try to strengthen national unity.

    Thursday's launch was North Korea's 16th round of tests this year. They have included the North's first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, and there are also signs that the North is preparing to conduct its first nuclear test in five years at a remote testing ground in its northeast.

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