North Korea steps up pressure with latest missile tests

Move seen as bid to coerce US, S. Korea to stop planned drills and offer concessions

A screengrab taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV showing the country's leader Kim Jong Un supervising a ballistic missile launch at an unknown location on July 31.
A screengrab taken from North Korean broadcaster KCTV showing the country's leader Kim Jong Un supervising a ballistic missile launch at an unknown location on July 31. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • North Korea fired missiles for the third time in over a week yesterday, a series of launches that analysts say are designed to improve military capabilities and pressure the United States and South Korea as they seek to restart denuclearisation talks.

US officials, who have been hoping to revive the stalled talks with North Korea, played down the launches. The North has been testing missiles despite US President Donald Trump's June 30 meeting with its leader Kim Jong Un, where they agreed to revive the talks.

The diplomatic process may have some bumps but conversations with North Korea are "going on even as we speak", US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Bangkok, where he is attending a meeting of the Asean regional grouping.

South Korea's government said the latest projectiles fired by the North appeared to be new short-range ballistic missiles.

The projectiles were fired at 2.59am and 3.23am from Yonghung, South Hamgyong province, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul said. They flew 220km and reached an altitude of 25km.

No immediate impact was seen on Japan's security after the North's latest launch, Japan's Defence Ministry said.

A US official said US intelligence had detected at least one projectile, and possibly more, but they did not pose a threat to North America. US officials said initial information indicated they were similar to two other short-range missile tests by Pyongyang since last week.

North Korean state media said Mr Kim oversaw the firing of what they described as a new large-calibre, multiple-launch guided rocket system on Wednesday. He also observed the launch of a short-range ballistic missile last week.

The launches appear intended to put pressure on South Korea and the United States to stop planned military exercises later this month and offer other concessions.

Mr Kim's government was assiduously improving military capabilities as well as signalling negotiating demands with the tests, said Dr Leif-Eric Easley, an international relations expert at Seoul's Ewha University.

"The aim is not only to increase Pyongyang's ability to coerce its neighbours; another goal is to normalise North Korea's sanctions-violating tests as if they were as legitimate as South Korea's defensive exercises."

Mr Trump was asked at the White House before he set off for a campaign trip to Ohio if he thought Mr Kim was testing him, and said the launches did not violate the North Korean leader's promises.

Mr Trump also said they were short-range missiles. "We never made an agreement on that. I have no problem," he said.

While Mr Trump says he never made an agreement on short-range missiles, the 15-member United Nations Security Council unanimously demanded in 2006 that North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and "re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching".

The UN Security Council met behind closed doors in New York on Thursday to discuss the latest missile launches.

Foreign ministers attending Asean's East Asia Summit of 18 nations expressed concern that the North's missile tests were having a negative impact on dialogue, a Thai Foreign Ministry official said.

After the meeting, representatives from Britain, France and Germany urged North Korea to engage in meaningful talks with the US and said international sanctions need to be fully enforced until Pyongyang has dismantled its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Mr Pompeo said the UN sanctions remained fully in place. "We're working with countries all across the world, many in this region, doing great work to enforce those," he said.

Mr Pompeo also said he was disappointed that his North Korean counterpart had cancelled a planned trip to the Asean meet.

"I think it would've given us an opportunity to have another set of conversations. I hope it won't be too long before I have a chance to do that," he added.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2019, with the headline North Korea steps up pressure with latest missile tests. Subscribe