North Korea has test-fired another ballistic missile into the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan, in a provocative act on the eve of the first meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
The missile was launched near Sinpo on the eastern coast and flew for nine minutes over 60km yesterday morning, drawing condemnation from South Korea and Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the missile launch a "grave violation" of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry called it a "threat to the peace and stability of the whole world", warning that further provocations could lead to more punitive measures.
But China downplayed the move. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said it saw no "certain link" between the missile launch and the summit, even as she called for restraint from all parties.
In what was seen as a reflection of Washington's growing frustration with Pyongyang, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said tersely in a statement: "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
Analysts said North Korea's latest move will accentuate the gulf between China and the US on how to deal with Pyongyang, and more provocations can follow if the outcome of the summit today and tomorrow is unfavourable to Pyongyang.
China's response appeared to be an attempt to pre-empt US pressure to get Beijing to rein in the Kim Jong Un regime, which has test-fired several missiles and conducted two nuclear tests since early last year in its bid to become a nuclear state.
Mr Trump has said China holds the key to curbing North Korea and even threatened unilateral action in a recent interview. Washington has also said all options, including military action, are on the table. But avoiding conflict would be a better option for Seoul and Tokyo.
China maintains that the nuclear issue is one between North Korea and the US, and China is doing its part by enforcing UN sanctions against Pyongyang and calling for dialogue to resume. In 2009, Pyongyang walked out of six-party talks.
Dr Go Myong Hyun of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies said yesterday's missile launch was a "gentle reminder" that the North should be taken seriously and not something Mr Trump can use as a bargaining chip. "China would like to ignore it, but the timing is too deliberate."
Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies said the US has made clear it will not soften its stance towards North Korea. "As it is getting closer (to the Trump-Xi summit), Washington might have felt it wouldn't be necessary or strategically sensible to give any signals about what it would do in response to North Korea's provocations."
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