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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

North Korea Fires 2 Missiles Off East Coast, Seoul Says

By William Gallo July 24, 2019

North Korea fired two missiles off its east coast early Thursday, South Korea's military said, Pyongyang's latest provocation that threatens to further delay stalled nuclear talks.

South Korea's joint chiefs of staff said the missiles were launched from near North Korea's eastern city of Wonsan and traveled about 430 kilometers at an altitude of 50 kilometers before splashing into the East Sea.

The statement did not say what kind of projectiles were fired. If Seoul's estimate is correct, however, they would appear to be relatively short-range projectiles, similar to the range of missiles launched by North Korea in May.

"It is likely that it is the same ISKANDER type that was shot in May," Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told VOA's Korea Service.

No US response yet

Japan's defense ministry said it has not detected any ballistic missiles entering its exclusive economic zone. U.S. officials have not responded to the launch.

The launch underscores the inability of U.S. officials to advance working-level nuclear talks with North Korea, despite three meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

It has been less than a month since Trump shook hands with Kim at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, a meeting White House officials portrayed at the time as a breakthrough.

Since then, North Korea has not responded to U.S. requests to begin working-level negotiations. Instead, the North has continued ramping up provocations and threats, in what analysts say is an attempt to improve its negotiating position.

Last week, North Korea's foreign ministry hinted Pyongyang could forgo the talks, and may resume intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests, if the U.S. and South Korea go ahead with planned joint military exercises.

On Tuesday, North Korean state media published photos of Kim and several other top military officials inspecting a newly built submarine that apparently can carry nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

Taking advantage

The provocations are a reminder that North Korea is taking advantage of the stalled talks to continue developing its nuclear and weapons programs, despite Trump's insistence that talks are progressing.

"The Kim regime likely times these tests for international signaling purposes, applying political pressure on the U.S. and South Korea in an effort to get more for less in future negotiations," says Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

"This contrast raises questions about North Korean intentions," Easley says. "Kim's plan appears to be keeping his country relatively closed and nuclear armed, while pocketing any political or economic benefits on offer."

Kim declared a moratorium on all nuclear and ICBM tests in April 2018. Pyongyang, however, launched several short-range ballistic missiles and other projectiles in early May.

Those missiles appeared to be North Korea's version of Russian-made ISKANDER quasi-ballistic missiles, which, though short-range, are able to be maneuvered in-flight and are apparently designed to evade South Korean and U.S. missile defenses.

The tests violated United Nations Security Council resolutions, which ban North Korea from conducting any ballistic missile activity.

In an apparent effort to preserve the talks, Trump and other top White House officials refused to criticize those missile tests, noting that short-range missile launches do not violate Kim's self-imposed moratorium.

Analysts at the time said that approach virtually ensured Kim would continue testing short-range missiles. Many are now calling for a firmer U.S. response to the latest launch.

"Trump, the U.N. Security Council and Seoul should not turn a blind eye to short-range ballistic missile tests. They can react without killing diplomacy," says Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

US approach to talks

North Korea has given the U.S. until the end of the year to change its approach to the talks. Pyongyang wants the U.S. to provide security guarantees and relax sanctions in exchange for steps to partially dismantle its nuclear program.

Trump insists he is in no hurry to reach a deal, insisting his friendship with Kim will eventually convince the young North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons.

"Our relationship with North Korea has been very good," Trump said Monday. "We've really established a good relationship with Kim Jong Un. I have personally. There's no rocket testing. There's no missile testing."

At their first meeting last June in Singapore, Trump and Kim agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But the two sides have been unable to agree on what denuclearization means or how to move the process forward.

North Korea's latest launch demonstrates the limits of Trump's personal outreach to Kim, says Vipin Narang, a nuclear and geopolitical expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It suggests what many feared: that Trump ceded leverage to Kim by acting like he wanted a deal – or talks – more than Kim did, and went to him," Narang says.

"But as Kim is pointing out: you came, but you didn't change your negotiating position or attitude, and you're going ahead with exercises, which you said you wouldn't do after Singapore. So here's a reminder of where things can go: I need more than a handshake," Narang added.

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