Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

North Korea's Kim uses 'long-range strike' drill to heap pressure on Trump

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea’s two launches of short-range missiles in just five days — part of what it said were military drills designed to bolster the nuclear-armed country’s “various long-range strike means” — will heap more pressure on U.S. President Donald Trump amid stalled nuclear talks.

The launches Thursday, which the South Korean military acknowledged were short-range missiles that flew 420 km (260 miles) and 270 km (167 miles), respectively, on an apogee of 45 to 50 km, would violate United Nations sanctions resolutions banning the use of ballistic missile technology by the North.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Friday that leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the exercises of military units in the country’s west and “learned about a plan of the strike drill of various long-range strike means.”

KCNA said the drill had “fully showed the might of the units which were fully prepared to proficiently carry out any operation and combat in the flames of the practical actual maneuvers kindled by the Party.”

Kim also referenced a similar drill that he led on May 4, when the North fired several rounds of unidentified short-range “projectiles” into the Sea of Japan that the U.S. later referred to as “rockets and missiles.” Those launches were the country’s first since November 2017.

The Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang characterized those as “regular and self-defensive” drills.

But, in an ominous note, the North hinted Friday that more tests may be on the way, with Kim saying that he was looking “to further increase the capability of the defense units” that carried out the two weapons tests.

The KCNA report quoted him as saying that “genuine peace and security of the country are guaranteed only by the strong physical force capable of defending its sovereignty.”

Thursday’s weapons were believed to be versions of Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile.

The Iskander has several variations, and details of Pyongyang’s version were not known. But the solid-fuel missiles can fly as far as 500 km, putting the entire Korean Peninsula within range.

Experts say that due to its relatively low peak altitude, an Iskander-type model could also effectively neutralize the advanced U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system, and it’s launches are nearly impossible to prevent because of their mobility.

Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on Friday called the launch of what Tokyo has identified as ballistic missiles a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

“Based on our comprehensive analysis of the information, the government believes the projectiles launched by North Korea on Thursday were short-range ballistic missiles,” Iwaya said. “The launch clearly violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and is extremely regrettable.”

Japanese officials said that for now the latest tests will not impede Tokyo’s efforts to explore holding a summit “without conditions” between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim.

“North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between Japan, the United States and South Korea. There is no doubt about it,” a senior Japanese diplomat was quoted by Kyodo News as saying.

The diplomat said Japan will wait to see how the Security Council will respond to the tests.

The spate of missile tests appeared to signal Pyongyang’s frustration with Washington over the deadlocked nuclear negotiations.

Trump said earlier Thursday that the U.S. is looking at the situation “very seriously.”

“They were smaller missiles — short-range missiles. Nobody is happy about it, but we’re taking a good look and we’ll see,” Trump said, adding that he thinks the North Koreans aren’t “ready to negotiate.”

In a surprising twist, the most significant pushback on the tests has come from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has championed outreach to Pyongyang.

“I’d like to warn that if such tests continue, it could hurt dialogue,” Moon said during an interview with broadcaster KBS TV on Thursday, the eve of the second anniversary of his coming to office. “North Korea appears to have significant frustration that the Hanoi summit ended without a deal. It is protesting to the United States and South Korea.”

A second summit between Trump and Kim, held in Vietnam in February, collapsed without a deal due to large differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and offers of sanctions relief by the U.S.

In a move that could further enrage Pyongyang, the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it had taken possession of a North Korean ship that had been seized by a foreign government more than a year ago after violating restrictions on transporting coal out of the North.

But the White House has maintained a relatively low-key response to the tests.

In Washington, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was nominated by Trump the same day for the post, was quoted as saying the Pentagon remained focused on supporting a diplomatic approach to the issue.

“We’re going to stick to our diplomacy, and as you all know, we haven’t changed our operations or our posture, and we’ll continue to generate the readiness we need in case diplomacy fails,” he said.

White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney also joined the chorus, playing down the tests and telling CBS News the “supposed provocation” was “very minor.”

“These missiles, whatever they were, whatever you want to call them, they were very small. And not aimed at Japan, not aimed at Guam, they were aimed up the North Korean coast. So it was a very non-provocative provocation, if there is such a thing,” he said.

Still, the spate of launches could undercut what Trump has repeatedly touted as his greatest accomplishment so far in the two countries’ nuclear talks: halting missile and nuclear tests.

Prior to the two recent launches, the North’s last known missile test came more than 500 days ago, when it test-fired a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which experts believe is capable of striking much, if not all, of the continental United States.

Pyongyang informally adopted a freeze on missile flight tests from then on, and in April last year declared a “suspension” of nuclear and long-range missile launches. A short-range test would not violate that unilateral suspension.

David Kim, a research analyst with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said the North’s emphasis on military drills focusing on “various long-range” strike options could mean that the training “was meant for a longer reach than Seoul, meaning the Japanese archipelago.”

The North has threatened Japan with destruction numerous times in its propaganda, and even lobbed longer-range missiles over the country as tensions soared in 2017. Tokyo has long urged Trump to make all ballistic missiles, not just longer-range weapons that can hit the U.S., part of any rollback of the North’s weapons of mass destruction programs — a request the U.S. has agreed to push Pyongyang on.

But North Korea has warned of an “undesired consequence” for the U.S. if Washington does not adjust its policy on the North’s denuclearization by an end-of-the-year deadline set by Kim.

The Stimson Center’s Kim, a former State Department nonproliferation and East Asia desk official, said the recent launches were an unambiguous warning to Trump.

“The message is clear from North Korea: They are ready to negotiate with Trump but diplomacy has a shelf life,” Kim said. “We can consider additional escalation by Kim if Trump continues to dismiss North Korea’s actions. Trump’s comment today that he doesn’t think North Korea is ready to negotiate doesn’t help the situation.”