Asia Pacific

North Korea fires two apparent missiles one day after South severs intelligence-sharing pact with Japan

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea fired two apparent ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan on Saturday morning, the Japanese government and South Korean military said, a day after Seoul severed a key intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.

The Japanese Defense Ministry said the weapons were “apparently ballistic missiles,” adding that the launch did not affect Japan’s security and that the missiles did not land in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

South Korea’s military, reporting the launch after Japan, said the North had fired two “short-range ballistic missiles” at 6:45 a.m. and 7:02 a.m. from the eastern province of South Hamgyong — the seventh time it has launched missiles in less than a month and the ninth since May.

It said the missiles had flown about 380 km (235 miles) with a maximum speed of “Mach 6.5 or higher” and an apogee of 97 km.

“North Korea’s repeated launches of projectiles and missiles show North Korea is working on developing this technology,” Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said, adding that the use of ballistic missile technology was banned under U.N. sanctions resolutions.

A senior U.S. official told The Japan Times that Washington was “aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea” and that they would continue to monitor the situation.

“We are consulting closely with our Japanese and South Korean allies,” the official said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, however, again downplayed the launches, saying Friday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been “very straight” with him.

Trump said recently that Kim had promised him that “this testing would stop” when joint military exercises with South Korea wrapped up. Those drills ended Tuesday.

Asked if Kim had violated his trust by firing more missiles despite his promise, the president denied this was the case.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said ahead of his departure for the Group of Seven summit. “He likes testing missiles.”

In a stunning move a day earlier that could further upend already fraying ties between Japan and South Korea, Seoul scrapped its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo, with the South’s presidential Blue House saying in a statement that it did not meet Seoul’s “national interests” to maintain the deal amid an intensifying spat between the neighbors.

Recent launches by the North had been first announced by the South Korean military, and Saturday’s launches were likely to test the two countries willingness and ability to continue sharing information in a timely manner. However, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs said it would share intelligence on the launches with Japan upon Tokyo’s request.

The intelligence-sharing pact is due to expire in November.

Iwaya said the timing of the launch was unlikely to have been coincidental.

“As North Korea closely monitors regional affairs, I believe the country took advantage of the situation,” he said.

Regional security experts echoed this sentiment.

“Timing this when Japan-South Korea ties are at their worst in decades, and just after Seoul pulled out of GSOMIA with Japan, would be all-to-predictably be right in the playbook of the Kim regime,” said J. Berkshire Miller, deputy director at the MacDonald Laurier Institute and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

Miller called the move “decoupling 101,” a reference to Pyongyang’s long-held goal of breaking up U.S. alliances in Asia.

“North Korea knows bilateral security cooperation between Japan and Korea is on life support and is now aiming to weaken underperforming trilateral cooperation with the U.S., which also is placed under great stress due to the current tensions,” Miller said.

Saturday’s missile tests also came a day after North Korea’s foreign minister warned the U.S. that it was “ready for dialogue or confrontation,” and vowed to remain “America’s biggest threat” for a long time to come.

Trump and Kim have met three times since last year to discuss ways to resolve a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but progress has been scant on Washington’s aim of getting the country to relinquish its arsenal.

Talks have been stalled since Trump’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, where he met with Kim, in late June. Trump said at the time that nuclear negotiations would resume in July, but the talks have yet to happen.

Instead, the North unleashed a barrage of criticism in recent weeks over the joint U.S.-South Korean military drills that began earlier this month, calling them a sign of Seoul’s hostility toward Pyongyang, which views the exercises as a rehearsal for invasion. Seoul and Washington characterize the exercises, which have been scaled down from previous years, as purely defensive.

Trump’s repeated downplaying of the launches has allowed the country more room to intensify its testing activity and advance its short-range weaponry while it seeks to build leverage ahead of the resumption of denuclearization talks, experts say.

The North has fired a spate of short-range missiles in recent weeks, including weapons designed to penetrate defenses. Those weapons were solid-fueled, had longer ranges, lower apogees and faster maximum speeds than previously seen, and were fired from transporter erector launchers (TELs). Experts say those types of mobile short-range ballistic missile systems would expand the North’s ability to strike targets throughout South Korea, including U.S. bases there, and possibly even put Japan within striking distance.

Iwaya has called the missiles a “grave threat” to Japan, and U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has said that one of the weapons tested, a missile known as the KN-23, “could probably hit all of South Korea and parts of Japan.”

Beyond a push for more leverage ahead of any talks with the U.S., the missile firings should also be seen through the lens of actual combat training, said Grace Liu, a research associate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California.

Liu said that Saturday’s launches were not just to elicit a response by the U.S. and its Asian allies, “but to develop reliable, operable systems can be fielded soon.”

“Now the diversity in launch sites leads me to believe that they’re also testing and refining personnel and deployment readiness,” Liu said.

“This may have been planned, but if the weapons systems were stored somewhat nearby, such a quick launch is feasible — not to mention a convenient quick-reaction exercise for the troops.

“Once they developed and tested the weapons systems successfully a couple of times, it’d be smart of them to make sure their troops were well-trained to use the new systems,” she added.

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