Asia Pacific

Trump plays down third North Korean missile test in eight days as allies' concerns grow

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea fired two “new-type” projectiles from its east coast, the South Korean military said Friday — the country’s third launch in just over a week, but one that U.S. President Donald Trump looked to play down — as a trade and history clash between Tokyo and Seoul threatened joint efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Both projectiles flew around 220 km at an altitude of about 25 km, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, which said they flew at a top speed of Mach 6.9.

What the North fired appeared to be a new type of short-range ballistic missile, sharing similar flight characteristics with those fired on Wednesday, officials from the U.S. and South Korea said, adding that more analysis was needed.

The Japanese government confirmed the launches, saying that no missile had landed in its territory or its exclusive economic zone, adding that it was monitoring the situation.

“As of now, we have confirmed no situation that would immediately affect the security of our country,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

A senior White House official also said it was “aware of public reports of additional missile launches from North Korea.”

“We continue to monitor the situation and are consulting closely with our South Korean and Japanese allies,” the senior official told The Japan Times on condition of anonymity.

In Bangkok later Friday, the top nuclear envoys of Japan, South Korea and the United States held trilateral talks after tensions between the two U.S. allies looked to throw a wrench into joint efforts to rein in the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Kenji Kanasugi, director-general at the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceania affairs bureau and Japan’s chief nuclear negotiator, met his South Korean and U.S. counterparts, Lee Do-hoon and Stephen Biegun, hours after Tokyo decided to strip Seoul of a preferential trade status. The row has sparked the most serious threat to trilateral security ties in recent memory.

The three diplomats’ meeting came on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum.

The South Korean military said the projectiles were fired at 2:59 a.m. and 3:23 a.m. from Yonghung, in South Hamgyong province. That would make the test-firings the first known launches from that site, experts said.

Trump, who has been working to revive stalled denuclearization talks with the North, played down the launches when asked about them, saying that he was not worried as they were short-range missiles and “very standard.”

U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from launching ballistic missiles.

“I think it’s very much under control,” Trump said. Asked if he can still continue denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the U.S. leader said, “Oh, sure, because these are short-range missiles.

“We never discussed that. We discussed nuclear. What we talked about is nuclear,” he said.

Pyongyang has abided by its self-imposed moratorium on tests of longer-range missiles and nuclear bombs, largely in a move designed so as not to force Trump’s hand, observers say.

Trump has repeatedly touted the lack of such tests as progress in his dealings with Pyongyang.

The North has said it is rethinking whether to abide by its halt to nuclear and longer-range missile tests, as well as other steps aimed at improving ties with the United States, linking these to joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for later this month.

Trump said in the U.S. on Thursday that he was still open to negotiations, but the launches were likely intended to heap pressure on him and South Korea amid the stalled nuclear talks.

North Korea fired what the U.S. and South Korea says were two short-range ballistic missiles early Wednesday, only days after it launched two similar missiles on July 25. It called last week’s launches a “solemn” warning to South Korea over its planned military exercises. The North said Thursday that the launches a day earlier were of a “new-type large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system,” which could still be a short-range ballistic weapon.

After the second test-firing, Tokyo reiterated its stance that U.N. sanctions ban North Korea from launching ballistic missiles of any kind.

Pyongyang’s tests have come despite a landmark June 30 meeting between Kim and Trump at the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, where they agreed to revive the talks.

On Thursday, ahead of the latest launch, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told Fox Business Network that the firings did not violate Kim’s pledge not to test long-range missiles or nuclear bombs. However, he added: “You have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin.”

“We’ve been waiting to hear since June the 30th,” he told the network. “We’re ready for working-level negotiations. The president’s ready, when the time is right, for another summit. Let’s hear from North Korea.”

Bolton said South Korea and Japan were concerned by the launches, “because they’re within range, we think, of this particular missile.”

The hawkish Bolton did not mention the tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in both countries.

Tokyo has repeatedly voiced concern over shorter-range missiles capable of striking Japan — including some that can be fitted with nuclear warheads. Trump has in the past said such weapons have been discussed in his meetings with Kim and that they would be included in any denuclearization deal with Pyongyang.

However, the latest tests — and the president’s lack of a strong response to them — were likely to rekindle concern in both Tokyo and Seoul.

“North Korea is now routinely carrying out successive tests to refine two advanced new short-range missile systems,” Adam Mount, of the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter. “As long as they only threaten our allies and our people there, the Trump administration seems content to downplay them.”

Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo, said Japan likely viewed the three tests as growing proof that North Korea is continuing to develop not only short-range weapons, but other systems as well.

“Tokyo … sees the downplaying of provocations concerning, as [the launches are] clear evidence that Pyongyang is still developing short-, mid- and long-range missile systems and likely chemical, biological and nuclear weapons that place Japan at great risk,” Nagy told The Japan Times.

In Bangkok on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said talks were still ongoing, but noted that the diplomatic road was often bumpy.

“You should never doubt what we are communicating to North Korea, there are conversations going on even as we speak,” Pompeo told Bloomberg TV. “We are still fully committed to achieving the outcome that we laid out, the fully, verified denuclearization of North Korea, and to do so through the measure of diplomacy.”

Asked if Trump would meet Kim for a third summit soon, Pompeo was mum, but teased the possibility.

“Stay tuned,” Pompeo said cryptically.