TOKYO/SEOUL – North Korea appears to have fired two missiles on Thursday in a move that comes as it has threatened to break off sputtering nuclear talks unless U.S. President Donald Trump offers up concessions by year end.
Two unidentified projectiles were fired at 4:59 p.m. from North Korea’s east coast into the Sea of Japan, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, adding that it was monitoring for more possible launches. The Joint Chiefs hasn’t yet provided information on how far the projectiles flew.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said that what appeared to be at least one North Korean ballistic missile landed outside of its territorial waters.
“We haven’t confirmed (that the projectiles) have fallen into Japan’s territory or exclusive economic zone,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Thursday evening. “Nevertheless, North Korea’s repeated launches of ballistic missiles are a grave threat against not only Japan but also international society at large. We will continue to work with the United States, South Korea, and other countries to monitor the situation and protect the lives and property of our people.”
The latest test comes almost two years to the date since leader Kim Jong Un’s regime last test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting all of the U.S. Kim put a brief freeze on testing after that and resumed firing with a vengeance from May, sending off about two dozen missiles — almost all of them short-range ballistic missiles.
Kim’s testing freeze ushered in unprecedented diplomacy with Trump, leading to historic meetings in Singapore, Vietnam and the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. But Kim and Trump have little to show for their negotiations, with the U.S. and North Korea unable to agree on what they mean by denuclearization.
Since the talks have started, Kim has been busy churning out fissile material for bombs and developing new missile technology that could make the next big launch of an ICBM even more concerning to Pentagon military planners, weapons experts have said.
The series of shorter-range missile launches in recent months has improved North Korea’s ability to make solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to move, hide and fire than many of its liquid-fuel versions.
Trump has brushed off North Korea’s missile tests, which Japan and others say violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, signaling to Kim that he can continue developing his weapons program as long as he doesn’t fire off another ICBM.
“Kim considers Trump as his political hostage and sees himself in a position to dictate the terms of the deal by demonstrating his capability to influence Trump’s chance for re-election,” said Chun Yung-woo, South Korea’s former chief envoy to international nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.
Kim has given Trump until the end of the year to ease up on sanctions choking his state’s paltry economy. In recent weeks his top cadres have been quoted in official media as expressing frustration by what they saw as U.S. inflexibility. The Trump team has said North Korea can only get rewards when it completely gives up nuclear arms — a move Pyongyang has said would be tantamount to political suicide.
“We, without being given anything, gave things the U.S. president can brag about but the U.S. side has not yet taken any corresponding step,” a spokesman for the State Affairs Commission headed by Kim said earlier this month. He added that the U.S. will face a “greater threat” if it does nothing.