South Korea's presidential Blue House said it "placed weight on the possibility" the missile was launched from a submarine. Japan's government said it had detected two ballistic missiles and said one may have landed in the waters of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters that officials from the two countries plan to meet “within the next week.”
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said the two countries “agreed to hold a working-level discussion on October 5th, following a preliminary contact on the 4th,” according to a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
“I expect the working-level talks to accelerate positive developments in DPRK-U.S. relations,” Choe said, using the initials of her country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Our representatives are ready to attend the working-level talks with the United States.”
But on Wednesday morning, North Korea continued with what has been a series of missile tests. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said North Korea had fired a ballistic missile from the sea northeast of the city of Wonsan, saying it had flown a distance of 280 miles, to an altitude of about 570 miles.
Japan’s government said the launch appeared to involve two ballistic missiles, and that one may have fallen inside its EEZ. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters the launch violated U.N. Security Council resolutions, adding “we strongly condemn and protest the act.”
The missile test was a reminder of North Korea’s military capabilities, and an indication that it intends to drive a hard bargain in the talks, experts said. It can also be seen as an implicit threat – that if it doesn’t get what it wants in the negotiations, it could ratchet tensions up higher.
South Korea said it presumed the missile was a Pukkuksong type. Ankit Panda, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was likely to be the Pukkuksong-3, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile that has been under development for a while. Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un was also seen inspecting a new submarine thought to be capable of firing ballistic missiles.
“It shows Kim Jong Un is making progress on developing the sea leg of his nuclear forces,” said Panda. “It’s clear the sea leg isn’t just a vanity project or a prestige project, but they see it as something worth spending resources on, to improve their deterrence in a crisis.”
Panda said the timing of the launch was probably an attempt to increase North Korea’s bargaining power in the talks with the United States, as well as a protest against South Korea’s display this week of new F-35 stealth fighters obtained from the United States, and Japan’s plans to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile defense system.
North Korea’s statement did not say where the talks would take place.
Negotiations between the two countries’ diplomats have been frozen since the breakdown of a summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February. Another meeting between the two leaders at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas in June was supposed to lead to a resumption of negotiations, but the stalemate persisted until now.
Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted short-range ballistic missile tests, while complaining bitterly about joint military exercises carried out by the United States and South Korea. On Monday, North Korea blamed the stalling of the dialogue on Washington and Seoul, accusing them of failing to keep their promises.
North Korean Ambassador Kim Song told the U.N. General Assembly that it was up to the United States whether negotiations “will become a window of opportunity or an occasion that will hasten the crisis.”
“The situation on the Korean Peninsula has not come out of the vicious cycle of increased tension, which is entirely attributable to the political and military provocations perpetrated by the U.S.,” the ambassador said.
North Korea has also insisted that talks will succeed only if the United States takes a different approach than its tack in Hanoi, but it has been careful not to criticize Trump directly.
Indeed, the North Korean Foreign Ministry also said last week that Trump is “different from his predecessors in political sense and decision” and that it hoped he would make a wise, bold decision.
Experts said Pyongyang saw a potential opening for progress before next year’s U.S. election campaign.
“As this year draws to an end, Kim Jong Un is trying to speed up the nuclear talks,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “Next year, the United States will have its presidential election, and South Korea will have a legislative election. Kim’s strategy could be to have his third meeting with President Trump before next year to get the best result ahead of the elections race.”
Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said the removal of John Bolton as White House national security adviser last month might have encouraged North Korea to think it could win sanctions relief by making a deal with Trump. Bolton had consistently held a hard line on North Korea.
In return, Easley said, Pyongyang might offer concessions, such as an unverifiable freeze on nuclear weapons production, that Trump could present as a symbolic victory.
“With Bolton out of the administration and the U.S. Congress talking impeachment, Pyongyang sees an opportunity,” Easley said.
On Monday, in his first public remarks since being fired, Bolton called North Korea’s nuclear weapons a “grave and growing threat” and said he did not believe Kim would give them up voluntarily.
Min Joo Kim reported from Seoul.