SEOUL — North Korea launched three short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast on Saturday, the South Korean Defense Ministry said. The tests broke the recent relative silence from the North, but the move was much less provocative than what had been feared in the tense weeks after the country’s nuclear test in February.
Short-range tests from North Korea are fairly routine, and as it often has, the North fired the missiles away from South Korea and toward the northeast.
South Korean and US officials have worried that North Korea would cap weeks of bluster after the nuclear blast with the test of a longer-range missile that might show worrisome improvements in Pyongyang’s arsenal.
Analysts say that missile, called the Musudan, might be capable of striking as far as Guam, where US troops are stationed. The North has threatened to strike bases there if provoked.
“With the short-range missile tests, North Korea is reminding the United States and South Korea that it can escalate tensions again and follow up with more serious steps if things do not go in the direction it wants,’’ said Kim Yong Hyun, a North Korea analyst at Dongguk University in Seoul.
US and South Korean officials have speculated that the North’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, might be hoping to force the Obama administration and South Korea to offer major concessions to stop its threats, a move Washington and Seoul have so far been unwilling to take.
Some analysts have also suggested in the past that a missile test might have an upside: allowing Kim to tell his people he had taken action after months of sensational warnings against Washington and Seoul, but to do so without provoking hostilities.
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Kim Min Seok, said that two missiles had been launched in the morning and another in the afternoon.
“We remain vigilant and prepared in case the launching of these missiles might be followed by a military provocation by the North,’’ Kim Min Seok said.
North Korea last launched short-range missiles in February and March. Such tests do not draw as much attention as the North’s longer-range ballistic missiles, which the country was barred from launching under United Nations resolutions.
In recent months, North Korea has threatened to strike the Unites States with nuclear missiles, although US intelligence agencies remain divided over how close it has come to mastering such a technology.
Officials in the region have been watching for North Korean missile tests since the South detected mobile launching vehicles on the North’s east coast early last month. The vehicles carried Musudan missiles, which have never been tested.
This month, US officials said North Korea had withdrawn the Musudan launching vehicles, prompting speculation that it wanted to de-escalate tensions or, perhaps, was moving the missiles out of view of spy satellites.
The tests of the shorter-range missiles followed a summit meeting on May 7 between President Obama and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun Hye, in which the two leaders made no new overture toward the North. Glyn T. Davies, the top US envoy on North Korea, completed a trip last week to Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo, where he discussed how to deal with the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the North’s launching of a three-stage rocket in December and its third nuclear test in February. The UN Security Council responded by tightening sanctions against the North, which sharply escalated its usual bellicose rhetoric, threatening nuclear strikes.
Tensions appear to have decreased in recent weeks, however, since the United States and South Korea completed their major annual military drills. The drills had angered the North.
With the apparent easing in tensions, Washington and its allies have recently revived diplomatic efforts to try to get North Korea recommitted to dismantling its nuclear weapons, which the North has recently said it would never give up.