After a hiatus of nearly a month that was lauded by the U.S., North Korea launched three short-range ballistic missiles early Saturday, with two flying roughly 250 km and the other exploding almost immediately, the U.S. military’s Pacific Command said.
Pacific Command said the three launches occurred near Kittaeryong, in eastern Gangwon province over a period of 30 minutes. It had initially said that the first and third missiles “failed in flight.”
The Japanese government also confirmed the launches, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying that they posed no direct threat to the security of Japan and that they did not land within Japanese territory or inside its exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan.
In Tokyo, the Defense Ministry said the launches may have been of “multiple short-range ballistic missiles or rockets.”
The South’s Yonhap news agency quoted the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying the North had fired “several unidentified projectiles” from Gangwon province starting at around 6:49 a.m.
Later on Saturday, South Korea’s presidential Blue House was quoted by Yonhap as saying the North may have fired an upgraded 300-mm caliber multiple rocket launcher, but that the military was still analyzing the details of the projectiles.
The launches came amid the ongoing joint U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian war games, a largely computer-simulated exercise that runs for two weeks in the South. Pyongyang, which views the exercise as a rehearsal for invasion, threatens the annual drill with a strong military response each year.
North Korea test-fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, with experts concluding that the second launch flew higher and longer than the first and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — within range of Pyongyang’s ever-improving weapons systems.
The brief hiatus in the North’s missile launches came to an end just days after the United States’ top diplomat praised recent “restraint” by Pyongyang over its apparent period of detente with the U.S. and its allies.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks highlighted that the door to dialogue with Pyongyang remained open despite its heated rhetoric with Washington, including the announcement of a plan to shower the area around the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with four missiles, overflying Japan.
“I think it is worth noting that we have had no missile launches or provocative acts on the part of North Korea since the unanimous adoption of the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Tillerson said Tuesday, according to a transcript of his briefing.
“I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past. We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we’ve been looking for that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions, they’re ready to restrain their provocative acts, and that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue.”
But the top American diplomat also added: “We need to see more on their part.”
With Saturday’s launches — which Pacific Command said did not pose a threat to Guam — it remains unclear if that door has now closed.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who had vowed to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it endangered the United States, also appeared to tamp down his rhetoric last week, expressing cautious hope for a possible improvement in relations with Pyongyang by telling a campaign rally in Phoenix that Kim “is starting to respect us.”
“And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about,” Trump said of the two countries’ relationship.
Saturday’s launches brought the total this year by the North to 17, according to Shea Cotton, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California.
Cotton said the launches raised a number of questions.
“Salvo launches are usually reserved for missiles North Korea knows work,” he said, citing the March firing of four missiles that Pyongyang called practice for striking U.S. bases in Japan.
Regardless of success or failure, analysts say the North uses every launch to its advantage, gleaning whatever information it can from them.
Saturday’s launches also came a day after a key national holiday in the reclusive nuclear-armed country. The North typically marks important anniversaries with missile launches or other provocations.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said earlier in the day that leader Kim Jong Un had inspected a special operation forces training of the country’s army on Friday that simulated attacks on South Korean islands along the countries’ western sea border.
KCNA said the “target striking contest” involved warplanes, multiple-rocket launchers and self-propelled guns that attacked targets meant to represent South Korea’s Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong islands before special operation combatants “landed by surprise” on rubber boats.
Kim reportedly told his troops that they “should think of mercilessly wiping out the enemy with arms only and occupying Seoul at one go and the southern half of Korea.”