SEOUL/WASHINGTON – North Korea’s test-firings of six short-range projectiles in three days may not reflect a return to a pattern of provocations by Kim Jong Un’s regime, according to the U.S. military’s top spokesman.
The launches don’t in themselves end a “provocation pause” and “do not necessarily violate” North Korea’s international obligations, Pentagon spokesman George Little, told reporters Monday in Washington. “I think we can safely say we remain in a period of tensions that are relatively small-scale by comparison” in the months after Pyongyang tested a nuclear device in February.
The firing of any projectiles Tuesday appeared to have “significantly diminished,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said. The regime, which fired two missiles Monday and four more projectiles over the weekend, said it is exercising its right to conduct the tests as part of regular military drills.
North Korea’s threats have moderated since annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises ended last month. Officials in Washington and Seoul have intensified diplomatic efforts to ease tensions and boost China’s participation in global sanctions that target the North’s nuclear weapons program.
“We are monitoring what is happening,” Little said. “We hope that over time the North Koreans continue to look hard at the need for peace and stability on the peninsula.”
The totalitarian state’s official Korean Central News Agency said Monday that its missile exercises were intended to boost deterrence against rising threats from the U.S. and South Korea. Before last weekend, attention had focused on whether North Korea would conduct a test firing of its midrange Musudan rocket.
With a range of 4,800-5,600 km, the Musudan poses a potential threat to Guam, a U.S. territory, though not to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland, according to testimony before Congress given in April by Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command.
“The North is likely testing these missiles as an armed protest against the recent military drills jointly conducted by the U.S. and South Korea” in March and April, said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
After the nuclear weapon test in February, Kim’s regime threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the U.S. The warnings led the U.S., South Korea and Japan to boost defenses and raised concern in China, the North’s biggest ally.
The U.S. and South Korea have repeatedly called on China, the North’s biggest trading partner, which has shielded the nation from tough action by the U.N., to make greater efforts to enforce sanctions targeting the North’s nuclear weapons program.
“There are some indications that China is slowly evolving its thoughts and stance vis-a-vis North Korea,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said Tuesday. North Korea’s “erratic behavior” is taking a toll and there is a “growing recognition” the North is becoming “a liability, instead of a strategic asset.”