North Korea fired two short-range missiles off its east coast into the Sea of Japan on Thursday morning, according to the South Korean military, in the first such launch since President Donald Trump met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late June.
They were launched near the coastal city of Wonsan at 5:34 and 5:57 a.m., respectively, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement, with an official later saying one had flown about 265 miles, to an altitude of about 30 miles, and the other had flown a longer distance.
“Our military is closely monitoring the situation in case of additional launches while maintaining a readiness posture,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The launch came the week after North Korea warned that planned military exercises involving U.S. and South Korean forces would jeopardize proposed disarmament talks with Washington, and hinted it might respond by resuming nuclear and missile tests. It accused Trump of reneging on a commitment to suspend the exercises.
A U.S. official familiar with North Korean affairs said the move appears to explicitly test Trump’s patience, as the president has repeatedly hailed his diplomatic success in halting the North from firing missiles into the Sea of Japan, an act that infuriates Tokyo.
After North Korea last launched two short-range ballistic missiles in May, national security adviser John Bolton said that was a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but Trump repeatedly played down the significance of that test as he sought to bring Kim back to the negotiating table. Those missiles also traveled a similar distance to Thursday’s launch.
Japanese government officials told the Kyodo News agency they had identified Thursday’s projectiles as short-range ballistic missiles, while Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya called the launch “very regrettable”, Jiji news agency reported.
The latest launches further dampen the optimistic mood struck by the Trump administration and North Korea following the meeting on June 30 between Trump and Kim at the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
At the time, the two leaders promised to direct their aides to engage in working-level talks to make progress on denuclearization discussions. Trump said the discussions would begin in two to three weeks. Instead of making progress, the North Koreans have hardened their outward posture, showing off a new submarine on Tuesday that experts said appeared designed to carry nuclear ballistic missiles, and rejecting a South Korean offer of aid as the country faces severe food shortages.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of international security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Thursday’s launch, and the unveiling of the submarine, show that “Trump’s trip to Panmunjom may not yet have had its desired effect.”
Experts said it was unlikely North Korea’s moves represent a rejection of Washington’s bid for dialogue and were more likely a show of strength and a negotiating tactic.
“I think they may have interpreted the DMZ meeting as evidence of overeagerness on our part, so a natural response if you feel like somebody’s overeager is you pull back a bit and try to see what else you can get,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Duyeon Kim at the Center for a New American Security said if the missiles prove to be the same as those launched in May, they should not be dismissed, because they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and threaten South Korea and U.S. forces there. She said the move was probably designed to “make things difficult” but not kill diplomacy, while perfecting Pyongyang’s weapons.
Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the launch could be an effort by Pyongyang to get Washington’s attention to get talks going without acting so provocatively as to elicit a major response.
“Yet beyond questions of negotiation strategy, these demonstrations make one thing clear: despite all the summits and rhetoric, North Korea remains highly dangerous,” he said.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Simon Denyer, John Hudson