South Korea’s National Security Council said it had assessed the projectiles to be a “new type of short-range ballistic missile,” but said it would make a final conclusion in coordination with the United States.
The launch came the week after North Korea warned that planned military exercises involving U.S. and South Korean forces would jeopardize proposed disarmament talks with Washington, and hinted it might respond by resuming nuclear and missile tests. It accused Trump of reneging on a commitment to suspend the exercises.
A U.S. official familiar with North Korean affairs said the move appears to explicitly test Trump’s patience, as the president has repeatedly hailed his diplomatic success in halting the North from firing missiles into the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea), an act that infuriates Tokyo.
After North Korea last launched two short-range ballistic missiles in May, national security adviser John Bolton said that was a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, but Trump repeatedly played down the significance of that test as he sought to bring Kim back to the negotiating table. South Korea also refrained from describing the last launch as ballistic missiles but this time had no such reluctance.
A short-range ballistic missile test is a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions, but not a violation of Pyongyang’s pledge to refrain from intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
Japanese government officials told the Kyodo News agency they had identified Thursday’s projectiles as short-range ballistic missiles, while Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya called the launch “very regrettable,” Jiji news agency reported.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo urged North Korea to halt actions that were unhelpful to relieving tensions on the peninsula.
The latest launches further dampen the optimistic mood struck by the Trump administration and North Korea following the meeting on June 30 between Trump and Kim at the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
At the time, the two leaders promised to direct their aides to engage in working-level talks to make progress on denuclearization discussions. Trump said the discussions would begin in two to three weeks. Instead of making progress, the North Koreans have hardened their outward posture, showing off a new submarine on Tuesday that experts said appeared designed to carry nuclear ballistic missiles, and rejecting a South Korean offer of aid as the country faces severe food shortages.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of international security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Thursday’s launch, and the unveiling of the submarine, show that “Trump’s trip to Panmunjom may not yet have had its desired effect.”
Experts said it was unlikely that North Korea’s moves represent a rejection of Washington’s bid for dialogue and were more likely to be a show of strength and a negotiating tactic.
“I think they may have interpreted the DMZ meeting as evidence of overeagerness on our part, so a natural response if you feel like somebody’s overeager is you pull back a bit and try to see what else you can get,” said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Duyeon Kim at the Center for a New American Security said if the missiles prove to be similar to those launched in May, they should not be dismissed because they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads and threaten South Korea and U.S. forces there. She said the move was probably designed to “make things difficult” but not kill diplomacy, while perfecting Pyongyang’s weapons.
Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the launch could be an effort by Pyongyang to get Washington’s attention to get talks going without acting so provocatively as to elicit a major response.
“Yet beyond questions of negotiation strategy, these demonstrations make one thing clear: Despite all the summits and rhetoric, North Korea remains highly dangerous,” he said.
Hudson reported from Washington. Reis Thebault in Washington and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.