Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

North Korea launches salvo of criticism and missiles after joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises kick off

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea on Tuesday launched a salvo of strident criticism — as well as two apparent short-range ballistic missiles — conducting its fourth weapons test in less than two weeks and blasting Washington and Seoul over joint military exercises.

The South Korean military said it had detected the two launches, which it said were “presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles” from the vicinity of Kwail County in South Hwanghae province at 5:24 a.m. and 5:36 a.m. Both missiles landed in the Sea of Japan.

“We detected the altitude of short-range missiles launched this time was around 37 km, the flying distance was around 450 km, and the maximum flying speed was mach 6.9 or higher,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that none of the projectiles had landed in the country’s territorial waters or its exclusive economic zone, and that the launches did not affect its security.

Tokyo also indicated that the projectiles may have been short-range ballistic missiles, Kyodo News quoted an unidentified Japanese government source as saying. The North is banned from testing such weapons under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The launches pose “grave threats and a serious matter to our country,” Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said in Tokyo.

The U.S. confirmed the launches and said it was working with allies Tokyo and Seoul.

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

New U.S. defense chief Mark Esper, who arrived in Tokyo later Tuesday, said that the United States will not overreact to the series of missiles launches in recent weeks and would keep the door open to talks with Pyongyang.

“The key is to keep the door open for diplomacy… we’re not going to over react to these, but we monitor them, we watch them closely and we’re cognizant of what’s happening,” Esper was quoted as saying.

Shortly after the launches were revealed, the North’s Foreign Ministry ripped into ongoing U.S.-South Korean military exercises that kicked off Monday, labeling them a “flagrant violation” of efforts to reach peace on the Korean Peninsula and reflecting a lack of “political will” by Seoul and Washington to improve relations.

The comments, in a statement by an unnamed North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, were carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The spokesman said that if the military exercises continued, the North “will be compelled to seek a new road as we have already indicated.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warned in January that he would seek a “new path” if the U.S. misjudges his patience and refuses to ease crippling sanctions.

U.S. officials have said stalled denuclearization talks with the North Koreans will happen “soon,” but have admitted that a time and location have yet to be set.

The U.S. said after President Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim at the truce village of Panmunjom on the border between the two Koreas in late June that the talks would begin sometime in July. That time frame has come and gone, but ahead of the military exercises’ kickoff, U.S. officials said the two sides were still in contact.

The military drills are reportedly command-post exercises mostly involving computer simulations, not mobilization of troops or military equipment, lasting about two weeks, while also testing South Korea’s capabilities in retaking operational control over its forces from the United States during wartime.

The exercises, which began on a low-key note, went ahead despite earlier warnings by Pyongyang, which views the drills as a rehearsal for invasion.

A U.S. Forces Korea spokesman told The Japan Times on Monday that the two militaries “continue to train in a combined manner at echelon while harmonizing our training program with diplomatic efforts by adjusting four dials: size, scope, volume and timing.”

Observers say Trump is betting that by keeping the joint exercises low-key, the U.S. can still convince the North to return to the bargaining table once the drills wrap up.

These moves, however, appear to have been disregarded by Pyongyang, which lashed out at the exercises Tuesday and blasted Washington for sowing “hostile military tension against us by deploying a large amount of latest offensive military equipment in south Korea,” including high-tech F-35 stealth fighter jets that Seoul purchased from the U.S.

“This is an undisguised denial and a flagrant violation of June 12 DPRK-U.S. Joint Statement, Panmunjom Declaration and September Pyongyang Joint Declaration, all of which are agreements to establish new DPRK-U.S. relations and build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, referring to a vaguely worded, 1½-page joint statement Trump reached with Kim at their landmark first summit in Singapore in June last year. DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Although the U.S. and south Korean authorities are playing all sorts of tricks to justify the joint military exercise, its aggressive nature can neither be covered up nor whitewashed in any manner,” the spokesman added.

The spokesman said that Pyongyang had “already warned several times” that the joint exercises would hinder ties with Washington and Seoul, “and bring us into reconsideration of our earlier major steps.”

“The U.S. and south Korean authorities cannot counter this even though they have 10 mouths,” the statement said.

Tuesday’s missiles were the fourth such launch in less than two weeks after it lobbed two short-range weapons into the Sea of Japan on Friday, just two days after it launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the waters. On July 25, Pyongyang also fired two rounds of a “new type” of ballistic missile, resuming its weapons testing after 77 days.

The South’s military said this week’s missiles resembled the July 25 launches.

“South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities believe that these short-range missiles bear similar flight features to the ballistic missiles North Korea test-fired on July 25,” the JCS said, adding that analysis was being conducted to determine their exact type.

“Our military is monitoring the situation in case of additional launches and maintaining a readiness posture,” it added.

David Kim, a research analyst with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, said he remained optimistic that stalled U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks will resume, but called the latest Foreign Ministry statement “disconcerting.”

Kim noted that the statement did not mention any U.S. officials by name, which he called “a good sign,” adding that the latest round of launches should be seen through the prism of the ongoing negotiations — and as North Korea continuing to maximize its position before the working-level discussions begin.

“The U.S. should be mindful of what North Korea is saying, but we have to the fuller picture in mind — they’ve intentionally forgone (intercontinental ballistic missile) and nuclear tests in the hopes of negotiations restarting,” he said.

U.S. officials, for their part, “have also been downplaying the ‘projectile launches,'” Kim added, with Trump and his top lieutenants noting specifically that the test-firings do not violate the North Korean leader’s pledge not to launch longer-range missiles or conduct nuclear tests.

He said that a test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, which is defined as having a range of 3,000 km to 5,500 km (1,860 miles to 3,400 miles), “would probably be the extent of what Trump is willing to tolerate.”

But Kim, a former U.S. State Department nonproliferation and East Asia desk official, said Trump “knows he will get a lot more flak from allies like Japan, who will see it as a direct threat to their homeland.”

“An ICBM or nuke test would essentially end the negotiations process in my opinion, and I don’t think North Korea is willing to gamble that,” he added.

Information added from Reuters