North Korea fired two projectiles into the Sea of Japan on Thursday, officials in South Korea and Japan said, in the nuclear-armed country’s 20th launch since May.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the North launched two “short-range missiles” that traveled 350-400 km and reached an altitude of about 100 km, adding that they were not believed to have fallen into Japan’s exclusive economic zone or territory.
Pyongyang is banned from ballistic missile launches under U.N. Security Council resolutions.
South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile, said in a statement that the “projectiles” flew 370 km at an apogee of 90 km and had been fired from an area of South Pyongan province in the afternoon.
The Pentagon also said it had detected “what appears to be a missile launch from North Korea,” adding that its “assessment is ongoing and additional information will be provided once available.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launches “as an act that threatens the peace and safety of Japan and the region,” noting that the North had carried out some 20 launches this year.
“It is clear that the objective is to improve its missile technologies,” Abe said. “It is necessary to further strengthen our security surveillance.”
The launches were unusual in that the North typically conducts them under cover of darkness, meaning the tests are usually done in the early morning or nighttime hours.
The nuclear-armed North’s last major weapons test was on Oct. 2, when it fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The latest launches come amid the North’s deadlocked nuclear negotiations with the United States and growing tensions with South Korea and Japan.
On Sunday, the country’s former top nuclear negotiator delivered a scathing indictment of the United States’ position in nuclear talks, blasting Washington’s “delaying tactics” and warning of a failure to heed leader Kim Jong Un’s deadline for a “bold decision” by the year’s end.
Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, a known regime hard-liner, said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency that “no substantial progress has been made” in improving ties and that continued “belligerent relations” could lead to an “exchange of fire” at “any moment.”
Kim Yong Chol said the U.S. would be “seriously mistaken” if it ignores the end-of-the-year deadline by using “delaying tactics” and “exploiting the close personal relations” between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.
“The U.S. is now more desperately resorting to the hostile policy towards the DPRK, misjudging the patience and tolerance of the DPRK,” he said, using the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Trump and Kim Jong Un have met three times, first for an official summit in Singapore last year, again for another meeting in Vietnam this year and once for talks at the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas in late June. Though surrounded by much fanfare, all three meetings have yielded few, if any, tangible results, critics say. Supporters of the president, however, contend Trump’s unorthodox approach — he was the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader — has upended Washington’s outdated way of dealing with Pyongyang.
Kim Jong Un, however, has expressed his displeasure with the direction of the negotiations by conducting a flurry of short-range missile tests, including weapons analysts say are designed to evade missile-defense systems in South Korea and Japan.
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the North’s strategy appeared to be to avoid making concessions in working-level talks, and if no summit with unearned rewards is on offer, to merely wait out the 2020 U.S. presidential election to then deal with a re-elected Trump or a new Democratic president.
“This would make sense if Kim Jong Un was satisfied with reputational gains from diplomacy since Singapore, increasingly leaky sanctions, and advancing military capabilities under the threshold of nuclear and ICBM tests,” Easley said.
But Easley said Kim Jong Un was unlikely to be satisfied with the status quo.
“Domestic pressures are likely such that Kim’s year-end threat is as much a deadline for economic progress as it is a diplomatic ultimatum,” he said. “This is why Pyongyang is increasing pressure on Seoul and Washington … while continuing provocative missile tests.”