BEIJING -- North Korea's latest missile launch comes after months of fiery rhetoric directed against South Korea, Japan and the United States, including threats of an imminent nuclear war.
The provocations eased with the conclusion of annual joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States at the end of April, although fresh naval drills this month prompted renewed warnings from the North.
The three missiles fired off North Korea's east coast Saturday were short-range surface-to-ship or surface-to-surface missiles, rather than the new medium-range Musudan missile that analysts feared could threaten U.S. troops in Okinawa or Guam, according to an initial assessment by the South Korean Defense Ministry.
Short-range missile tests are quite common by the North Korean regime, and Saturday's launch might have been a face-saving move by Pyongyang, which is under intense international scrutiny concerning its next move.
"By launching the short-range missile, the North wouldn't provoke countries surrounding them, but can tell its people that they have carried out a serious threat against the U.S.," said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at South Korea's Sejong Institute.
The North's outbursts were prompted in part by the imposition of tightened United Nations sanctions over its efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Here is a timeline of the escalating tension:
Feb. 12, 2013: North Korea performs its third nuclear test, prompting an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
March 7: North Korea for the first time threatens to launch preemptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea, saying Washington will be engulfed in a “sea of fire.” The statement comes hours before the U.N. Security Council tightens financial sanctions against Pyongyang.
March 11: Pyongyang cuts off a hotline between North and South Korea and says it has torn up the nations' cease-fire accord, signed in 1953, after the U.S. and South Korea kicked off joint military drills at midnight.
March 26: North Korea’s top command announces that it has put its artillery and strategic rocket units under "No. 1 combat readiness," targeting South Korea, Hawaii, Guam and the mainland United States. The following week, the Pentagon says it is sending a mobile defense system to Guam as a precautionary measure, although U.S. officials do not believe North Korea’s missiles have the range to hit the Western Pacific island, much less the U.S. mainland.
March 30: North Korea says it has entered “a state of war” with South Korea and threatens to shut down a border factory complex that had been one of the proudest examples of cooperation between the two countries. The following week, the North bars South Koreans from entering the Kaesong complex, located just north of the demilitarized zone.
April 2: North Korea vows to expand its nuclear arsenal, including reactivating a plutonium-producing reactor complex at Yongbyon, idled in 2007 as part of a disarmament agreement. The announcement comes two days after North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, described the country’s nuclear weapons program as a "treasure" that would not be abandoned or traded "for billions of dollars."
April 4: North Korea moves intermediate-range missiles to its eastern coast, putting South Korea, Japan -- along with U.S. bases in both countries -- within possible range. The missiles are later relocated without explanation.
April 5: North Korea urges foreign embassies to evacuate, saying it cannot guarantee their safety after April 10.
April 9: North Korea warns foreigners in South Korea to make evacuation plans, saying it does not want any harm done to them in case of a war.
April 15: The North celebrates the birthday of its founder and Kim's late grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
May 2: North Korea announces that Kenneth Bae, a Korean American tour operator from Washington state, has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for "hostile acts" against the country.
Saturday: The North launches three short-range missiles off its east coast. They are estimated to have a range of up to 72 miles.
Demick reported from Beijing; Zavis reported from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Jung-yoon Choi in Seoul contributed.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times