North Korea launches two short-range missiles as US tensions rise

North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range missiles on Thursday in its second such test in less than a week. The United States announced it had seized a North Korean cargo ship as tensions again mounted between the two countries.

Jung Yeon-je, AFP | People watch a television news programme showing file footage of North Korea's projectile weapons, at a railway station in Seoul on May 9, 2019.

U.S. President Donald Trump said “nobody is happy” at the missile launches, which South Korea said were likely a protest by Pyongyang against Trump refusing to ease economic sanctions on the North.

The United States has given no sign of willingness to budge on sanctions and, on Thursday, the Justice Department announced the seizure of a North Korean cargo vessel it said was involved in the illicit shipping of coal.

North Korea has effectively pulled back from engagement with Washington since a summit between leader Kim Jong Un and Trump in February fell apart without agreement on U.S. demands for the dismantling of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and Kim’s demands for relief from punishing sanctions.

“The relationship continues ... I know they want to negotiate, they’re talking about negotiating. But I don’t think they’re ready to negotiate,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday.

Second missile launch

Less than a week ago, Kim oversaw the test-firing of multiple rockets and a missile and the latest tests coincided with a visit to the South Korean capital by U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun.

The two missiles fired on Thursday went east from the northwestern area of Kusong, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

They covered distances of 420 km (260 miles) and 270 km (168 miles) and reached an altitude of about 50 km (30 miles) before falling into the sea, they said.

Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said: “We’re aware of the reports and monitoring.”

“North Korea seemed to be discontented it could not reach a deal in Hanoi,” South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in told South Korean broadcaster KBS, referring to the summit in Hanoi with Trump.

South Korea’s Moon said that even if the missiles fired on Thursday were short range, they could still violate U.N.  resolutions barring North Korea from developing its ballistic missile force.

Even so, Moon said he saw the tests as a sign that North Korea wanted to negotiate, and said he planned to push for a fourth inter-Korean summit with Kim.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who earlier cut short a European trip to return to Washington for meetings on Iran, was also due to have discussions on North Korea after learning of the launches, a senior U.S. State Department official said.

Pompeo was due to meet on Thursday with Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who is expected to raise Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes to set up a summit with Kim.

Weekend tests

Analysts said it was too soon to say exactly what kind of missiles were involved in the latest launches, but the range would probably exceed that of most of the rockets North Korea fired on Saturday from its east coast into the ocean.

“North Korea has returned to its classic escalation tactics from before,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum. “I believe they will keep escalating by using what appear to be short-range missiles, something that will not cause the U.S. to react right away.”

Harry Kazianis, of Washington’s Center for the National Interest think tank, said the new launches could only worsen tensions.

“While this recent launch of short-range missiles does not violate Pyongyang’s promise to halt longer-range tests, North Korea has now made it clear it will not halt developing other parts of its military capabilities that threaten the region,” he said.

“Kim’s goal, beyond ensuring his weapons programs are becoming more powerful, is quite clear: to show America and its allies that if they aren’t willing to compromise on the terms of denuclearisation.”

On Saturday, North Korea launched multiple rockets and at least one short-range ballistic missile.

That was the North’s first test of a ballistic missile since launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017 and sharply raising tension at a time of stalemate in its talks with the United States.

This week, North Korea lashed out at the United States and South Korea, saying the weekend launches were “regular and self-defensive” and rejecting the notion that they were provocative. It criticised Seoul and Washington for carrying out military drills.

Trump and his administration played down the weekend tests, and in a Twitter message on Saturday, the U.S. president said he was still confident he could reach a deal with Kim.

Trump has previously held up a freeze in missile testing since 2017 as evidence of progress with North Korea, while he and Pompeo have brushed aside Kim’s demand for Washington to show more flexibility in nuclear talks by the year-end.

In 2017, after North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) - which it said was capable of delivering a warhead to anywhere in the United States - Kim declared his nuclear force complete. He then extended an olive branch to Seoul and Washington, holding two summits with Trump and three with the South Korean president.

A North Korean media report on Wednesday had hinted at the more tests, saying: “The south Korean military were astonished by the recent strike drill. It might fall into a swoon to see a strike drill involving more powerful cutting-edge weapons.”


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