By Jung Sung-ki
North Korea test-fired several short-range missiles off the western coast Friday morning, apparently to protest South Korea's tougher policy on it.
The missile test was the first in nine months since it test-launched a series of short-range surface-to-surface missiles off the eastern coast toward Japan.
Later in the day, the North's naval command threatened to take military action against the South in the western waters through the regime's official media outlets.
It accused South Korean battleships of ``infiltrating'' the territorial waters of the north side in the West Sea, or Yellow Sea, calling the Northern Limit Line (NLL) a ``ghost line.''
``South Korea's reckless military provocation in the West Sea raises tensions,'' said a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency. ``It cannot help bring out military conflicts if South Korea maintains its position to keep the NLL.''
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) quickly dismissed the claim, saying, ``South Korean naval ships have never violated the NLL.''
Pyongyang rejects recognizing the NLL, which has served as the de facto sea border between the two Koreas since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. It demands the line be redrawn, which Seoul sees a territorial concession.
The missile test and release of the provocative statement were construed as part of the communist regime's brinkmanship tactics to sway next month's National Assembly elections in the South, as well as to reject Lee's policy that demands more reciprocity, said North Korea experts here.
The North has often committed provocative military acts to ``help'' liberal lawmakers in South Korea win major elections over conservatives.
Cheong Wa Dae downplayed the missile launches, saying they were part of the North's ``ordinary military exercises,'' in a gesture not to give in to the North's trademark brinkmanship game.
``We're closely watching the situation,'' presidential office spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said in a briefing. ``We believe North Korea also doesn't want inter-Korean relations to be strained.''
The JCS said in a statement that the North was believed to have conducted the exercise to ``evaluate and upgrade the performance of its guided missiles'' as part of a routine military exercise.
A JCS spokesman said on condition of anonymity that at least North Korea was believed to have test-fired three short-range missiles northward from a naval ship in South Pyeongan Province at around 10:30 a.m. He declined to comment on the types of the missiles, citing the ``protection of intelligence routes.''
Military authorities had detected a sign of the North's missile test earlier this week, he said. A North Korean vessel loaded with a short-range missile launch pad was detected Tuesday in the West Sea in what South Korean officials believed was part of preparations for the test, the spokesman said.
Defense experts said, however, the missiles were believed to be short-range ship-launched Russian Styx missiles with a range of 46 kilometers.
North Korea's missile threat has been a constant concern for the security in the region as well as on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea is believed to have more than 600 Scud short-range missiles with a range of 500 kilometers and 200 Rodong medium-range missiles with a range of 1,300 kilometers.
In July 2006, the Stalinist regime test-fired several missiles off the eastern coast, including the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile with a range of 6,700 kilometers capable of hitting the United States with a light payload.
Conservative political parties denounced the tests calling them a severe ``provocation'' and ``challenge'' to the security of South Korea.
Liberal parties and progressive civic groups, on the other hand, shifted the blame to the Lee administration's tougher stance on the North.
``The government should try to resolve North Korean issues through dialogue and negotiation, not provoking the North,'' Yoo Jong-pil, spokesman of the main opposition United New Democratic Party.
Lee, who took office last month, has pledged a ``pragmatic'' line on North Korea different from those of his liberal predecessors _ Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun _ who were often criticized for ``giving much but receiving little.''
The President said his government would not hesitate to criticize the North's shortcomings, such as its nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses.
In a step to meet his pledge, South Korea Thursday voted for a UN resolution condemning North Korea's alleged human rights violations.
President Lee made it clear Wednesday that he would not engage in cross-border talks ``against the people's will,'' hinting that South Korean-backed inter-Korean business programs would be put on the backburner until substantial progress is made at international negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
The missile launches came a day after the expulsion of 11 South Korean liaison officials from a joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Gaeseong by North Korean authorities.
The North criticized Unification Minister Kim Ha-joong for his linking the expansion of the industrial complex to the settling of North Korea's nuclear program.
The expansion of the business park is part of a package of agreements on inter-Korean economic cooperation reached during the second inter-Korean summit between former President Roh and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.