N. Korea fires missiles during U.S. drills

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles after it launched four into the sea off its eastern coast last week, escalating tensions as the U.S. and South Korea entered the second week of joint military drills.

The two missiles were fired shortly past 6 a.m. local time Monday and had a range of at least 310 miles, South Korea's Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said at a briefing. He called the launches "a provocative act of saber-rattling."

The six launches since Feb. 27 coincide with annual U.S.-South Korean military drills that draw thousands of American troops from abroad. They also came ahead of March 9 elections in North Korea, the first parliamentary ballot since leader Kim Jong Un took power in 2011.

"North Korea needs a military firework to celebrate the start of a new ruling group and rally behind Kim," Ahn Chan Il, who heads the World Institute for North Korea Studies research center in Seoul, said by phone. "The regime is also trying to show it's they, not the U.S. or South Korea, that are in control of the security situation on the peninsula."

South Korea's Hyundai Merchant Marine, the biggest stakeholder in Hyundai Asan, which once operated tours to North Korea, lost as much as 3.4 percent Monday, its steepest intraday decline since Feb. 27. Authorities are cautiously monitoring the currency market after the missile launch, South Korea's Finance Minister Hyun Oh-seok told reporters.

North Korea is barred from conducting tests of ballistic missiles under resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which tightened its sanctions against the country after the North conducted its third nuclear test more than a year ago.

The U.S.-South Korean drills began Feb. 24, involving both field training and computer simulations aimed at improving combat readiness. North Korea calls the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises a prelude to war while the allies describe them as defensive in nature.