North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles from its east coast Wednesday, the South Korean military said, less than a week after the launch of two similar weapons as it looks to heap pressure on Seoul and Washington to halt upcoming joint military drills.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that both missiles were estimated to have flown about 250 km at an altitude of roughly 30 km. The first missile was launched at 5:06 a.m., and the second at 5:27 a.m., from the Kalma area near the eastern port of Wonsan, the JCS said, adding that the South Korean and U.S. militaries were continuing to analyze the launches.
The South Korean military said Wednesday’s launches were of weapons similar to the new type of missiles launched six days ago. Seoul said both of those missiles traveled 600 km, and that flight data of the weapon, known as the KN-23, showed similarities to the Russian-made Iskander, a short-range, nuclear-capable missile.
Experts have said a North Korean version — a feature of which is its claimed “low-altitude gliding and leaping flight orbit” capabilities — would be extremely hard to intercept and could likely reach all of South Korea, home to 28,500 U.S. troops. Some experts have also speculated that the missile could even reach parts of Japan.
“Successive missile launches by North Korea are not conducive to efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and we call for a halt to these acts,” the JCS said in a statement.
In Tokyo, the Defense Ministry said the launches did not land in Japan’s territorial waters or exclusive economic zone, while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo was working with its allies and that the launches were “no threat to Japanese national security.”
“We will continue to closely cooperate with the United States and others,” he said.
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, meanwhile, blasted the firings as going against United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“It’s very regrettable that North Korea is repeating missile launches in violation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Iwaya said.
On Monday, Japan said it had lodged a protest with the North via diplomatic channels in Beijing over last week’s two short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan.
The U.S. also said it was following the launch reports.
“We are aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea and we will continue to monitor the situation,” a State Department official told The Japan Times.
The South Korean presidential Blue House, meanwhile, on Wednesday expressed “strong concerns” that the latest launches could put a damper on the prospects of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The move came after a North Korean official told the White House last week that working-level talks to revive denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang would begin very soon, Reuters reported Tuesday, quoting a senior U.S. administration official.
The U.S. National Security Council official had been in the region for unrelated talks, and traveled to the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas to deliver some photographs commemorating the June 30 meeting at the DMZ between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the report said.
Denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since Trump met Kim in Hanoi at the end of February. Those talks collapsed amid major differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by Washington.
The White House had said it hopes the long-stalled working-level talks with the North would restart sometime this month after the DMZ meeting injected fresh momentum into the negotiations.
The North’s recent spate of weapons tests, including its launch of two “new-type” missiles last week and a similar launch in May has been seen as an attempt by Pyongyang to gain leverage and heap pressure on both Seoul and Washington ahead of any rebooted talks.
Trump has downplayed the recent launches and expressed an interest in reviving the talks, and sent the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, to accompany Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Bangkok for meetings on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum this week. The two sides could lay the groundwork for the talks’ restart during meetings on the sidelines of that forum.
Pyongyang has expressed frustration with Washington and Seoul in recent weeks, warning on July 16 that if the United States did not halt a joint military drill with South Korea scheduled for next month, it might scuttle efforts to kick-start the negotiations — and even potentially resume nuclear and longer-range missile tests.
North Korean state media said its missile tests last week were supervised by Kim and were designed to deliver a “solemn warning” to South Korea over the planned military drills, which Pyongyang calls an invasion rehearsal, and its purchase of cutting-edge, U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighter jets.
The U.S. and South Korea have said that the 19-2 Dong Maeng (alliance) exercise will go ahead in August, though Seoul has hinted that they could undergo a name change.
Last week, Kim also inspected a “newly built submarine” that was to operate in the Sea of Japan, state-run media reported, in one of the first displays of power related to his country’s nuclear capabilities since November 2017.
On Wednesday, some South Korean lawmakers were briefed by the Defense Ministry on the submarine.
“The new submarine is said to be able to load up to three submarine-launched ballistic missiles,” media reports quoted Lee Hye-hoon, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee in the National Assembly, as saying.
Some experts have said that some of these displays of power could be internal signaling.
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said Wednesday’s news was reminiscent of “the typical projectile launches we’ve come to expect recently from North Korea: designed to raise tensions in a calculated, restrained way.”
Oba said there were three possible reasons behind the latest firings — tactical, technological and domestic motivations.
“There is going to be a lot of speculation about the tactical part — what signal this is meant to send, why it was timed for today, and how it factors into diplomacy with the United States,” he said. “And nonproliferation experts will have more to say about the technology. But the one possibility we neglect the most is the domestic signaling, and that may well be part of it, too.”