SEOUL, South Korea -- 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 American 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 American 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.
American 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 that a missile test might have an upside: allowing Mr. 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," Mr. Kim 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 United States with nuclear-tipped missiles, although American intelligence agencies remain divided over how close it has come to mastering such 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, American 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 overtures toward the North.
Glyn T. Davies, the top American 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 on the divided peninsula appear to have decreased in recent weeks, since the United States and South Korea completed their major annual military drills. The drills had angered the North.
With the apparent easing, Washington and its allies have recently revived diplomatic efforts to try to get North Korea committed to dismantling its nuclear weapons, which the North has recently said it would never give up.
On Saturday, Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the United States National Security Council, said that North Korea "will achieve nothing by threats or provocations" -- which she said would further isolate the country.
"We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama's call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations," she said.
Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.