SEOUL – Kim Jong Un oversaw a live-fire military exercise Saturday that potentially included North Korea’s first ballistic missile launch since 2017, challenging U.S. President Donald Trump’s bottom line in nuclear talks.
Kim watched as “large-caliber, long-range multiple-rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons” were fired off North Korea’s eastern coast Saturday, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. The state media’s report on Sunday was accompanied by a photo of what nonproliferation analysts said appeared to be the launch of a short-range ballistic missile.
While such a test would violate United Nations resolutions imposing sanctions on North Korea, it would stop short of breaching Kim’s pledge to refrain from testing longer-range missiles that could threaten the U.S. “We still believe that there’s an opportunity to get a negotiated outcome where we get fully verified denuclearization,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Trump had brushed off the incident on Saturday, saying in a tweet that Kim “does not want to break his promise to me.”
“Kim Jong Un may be starting his ‘push-the-line’ strategy, gradually seeing how much Trump will turn a blind eye to,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of its security studies program. “Not good.”
South Korean markets are closed for a holiday on Monday. So-called peace stocks, or companies with business ties to North Korea, may move on Tuesday as investors assess the impact. Stocks plunged and the currency weakened after Trump’s summit with Kim was abruptly cut short in February.
Neither U.S. nor South Korean authorities immediately confirmed a ballistic missile launch, which was bolstered by a satellite image from Planet Labs Inc. showing what appeared to be a single missile contrail at the exercise site. South Korea’s defense ministry said Sunday that North Korea tested “new tactical weapons” and artillery that traveled 70-240 km (40-150 miles), without mentioning “missiles.”
Nathan Hunt, an independent defense researcher, said the South Korean statement was “skirting over” North Korea’s ballistic missile launch. “They did indeed test a new short-range missile, or as others call close-range ballistic missile, and this was not just an artillery drill,” Hunt said.
Either way, the exercise was Kim’s most significant provocation since he launched an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017, declared his nuclear weapons program “complete” and opened talks. Kim has expressed increasing frustration since Trump refused his demands for sanctions relief and walked out of their second summit in Hanoi in February.
The North Korean leader accused the U.S. of “bad faith” during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in late April. He had earlier told North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly that he would wait “with patience till the end of this year” for the U.S. to make a better offer.
The weapon featured in the KCNA photograph appeared to be a solid-fuel ballistic missile similar to a Russian Iskander, said Melissa Hanham, a nonproliferation expert and director of the One Earth Future Foundation’s Datayo Project. North Korea had unveiled a similar weapon, which could be stored while fueled, deployed and fired with less detection time, during a military parade in February 2018.
“Looks like Donald Trump is ignoring it, because it doesn’t fit into his narrative,” Hanham said. “He wants to pretend that he is making progress in North Korea and that they wouldn’t test a new missile.”
The North Korean exercise came days ahead of U.S. special representative Stephen Biegun’s expected arrival in the region. The top American nuclear envoy is scheduled to travel to Tokyo on Tuesday and to Seoul on Thursday.
Adding to the confusion were South Korea’s revisions of its accounts of the nature and scale of the weapons discharged from North Korea’s eastern port of Wonsan. After first calling them “missiles,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff later changed its description to “projectiles.”
Japan’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that the country hadn’t detected any missiles entering its exclusive economic zone and as such there was no immediate impact to its national security.
Still, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s spokeswoman condemned the incident on Saturday, saying in a statement that it went against a September agreement between the two Koreas to halt “hostile activities.” Trump has cited Kim’s self-imposed freeze on missile and nuclear weapons tests to support his decision to continue negotiations with the North Korean leader.
The exercise may also signal displeasure with South Korea’s participation in joint military drills with the U.S., despite Trump’s decision to scale down those efforts. North Korean state media has repeatedly complained about the drills in recent weeks and Kim pledged “corresponding acts” during his speech last month to the rubber-stamp parliament.
Although Saturday’s exercise was the most significant since Kim’s detente with Trump, North Korea has announced more limited weapons tests in recent months. Kim personally oversaw the test-firing of a “new-type tactical guided weapon” last month, which South Korea later said appeared to be a system intended for ground combat and not a ballistic missile.
North Korean media reports on the latest exercise included no references to the U.S. or South Korea. That was possibly part of an effort to limit damage to the September agreement with Seoul, said Ankit Panda, adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
“They emphasized technological sophistication and framed the exercise in fairly defensive terms,” Panda said.
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