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SEOUL — North Korea launched a missile into the Sea of Japan on Monday, the second such incident in a month amid tensions over its suspected nuclear weapons development program.

Maj. Ha Ju-hyun, a South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said the North launched the missile at noon Monday.

The test came as no surprise. On Friday, Pentagon officials warned ships to stay out of a sector of the Sea of Japan between Saturday to Tuesday.

U.S. Forces Korea officials declined to comment on the test and forwarded all queries to the South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

Ha said South Korean officials believe Monday’s missile is a shore-to-ship missile — the same type North Korea fired Feb. 24, one day before South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun’s inauguration.

South Korean officials said the second missile was launched from a pad at Sinsang-ri and flew 68 miles. It had a range of 99 miles.

Theories on the motivation behind the launch are mixed.

Some analysts and regional experts claim it’s another example of how the North is trying to increase tensions with the United States, while others claim the North is only conducting a military exercise.

In Tokyo, Japan’s Defense Agency chief, Shigeru Ishiba, said the missile didn’t appear to target Japan, according to The Associated Press.

“We don’t think this will have any significant impact on our national safety, but we are monitoring it closely,” he said.

Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials said they believe the launch was possibly part of North Korean annual winter training and may have been used to test the capability of their existing missiles.

The “Government of Japan believes it is undesirable in relations with surrounding countries for North Korea to take this kind of action under current circumstance and hope it will take responsible actions as a member of the international community,” a spokesman told Stars and Stripes on Monday.

A researcher with the Korean Institute for Defense Analyses, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the move was meant to raise tensions on the peninsula.

The North is “trying to force” an agreement with the United States, the researcher said.

He also said there likely will be a few more minor military incidents in the near future.

Kim Myong Chol, considered the unofficial spokesman for North Korea, responded in writing to a Stars and Stripes query.

He said the missile test is “nothing but part of a routine military exercise and never deserves the current deluge of publicity.”

Born in Japan, Kim received a Ph.D. in political science from the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences and worked in the North from 1966 to 1984. He is the executive director of the Center for Korean-American Peace in Japan and author of the book “Kim Jong Il’s Reunification Strategy.”

“If the current test-firings carry any political significance, they send a signal to the Americans and the Japanese that the small North Korean navy’s anti-ship missiles can carry out over the horizon strikes on their naval assets, as they come at a time when the Americans and the South Koreans are engaged in month-long Foal Eagle drills,” Kim wrote.

An international politics professor at South Korea’s National Defense University said the timing is important with Monday’s incident.

“The United States is preparing for a war with Iraq, so maybe the North wants to show the United States they are ready” militarily, said Kim Su-nam.

But he doesn’t think North Korea will launch any preemptive attacks.

Army 1st Sgt. Kelvin Lewis, with 524th Military Intelligence Battalion, Alpha Company, said “Everyone is somewhat worried and this could cause heightened tensions.”

But Lewis said he’s “focused on motivating his soldiers every day.”

“I don’t get too much involved in the political aspects of what’s going on,” he said.

According to news reports, U.S. and South Korean officials are more concerned about a possible North Korean testing of a Taepodong-2 missile, which analysts believe is capable of reaching parts of the United States, though there are widespread doubts about its reach and accuracy.

In 1998, North Korea test-fired a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific.

Choe Song-won, Hana Kusumoto and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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