TOKYO — North Korea launched two short-range missiles Thursday in its second such test in under a week, part of a calibrated escalation of pressure on Washington that coincided almost exactly with a U.S. test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Kim Jong Un has been ratcheting up North Korea’s military displays with rocket and missile tests — each a bit more provocative than the last — following the breakdown of his summit with President Trump in Hanoi in February.
North Korea’s possible endgame remains difficult to decipher. Since Hanoi, there has been little apparent movement to restart talks on a potential deal to dismantle the North’s nuclear program in exchange for international development opportunities and the lifting of international sanctions.
But South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it seems Kim is “deeply discontented” by the unraveling of the Hanoi summit without a deal.
“I think it was sort of a rebellious nature against both the United States and South Korea,” Moon told South Korean state broadcaster KBS.
The timing of the latest launch also coincided with a visit to Seoul by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, as well as a trilateral defense meeting of the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The two missiles were launched as the United States conducted its own scheduled launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The North Korean launches occurred at 11 minutes before and nine minutes after the U.S. test.
It was the second test of the U.S. Minuteman III missile this month and the third this year, although the Air Force says such tests are scheduled years in advance and are not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s military is watching, and it said earlier Thursday that it saw another U.S. test last week as a direct threat.
Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have deteriorated sharply since the breakdown of the Hanoi summit over how much — and how fast — North Korea would have to take apart its nuclear sites.
Nevertheless, Trump continues to insist that a deal is possible. Kim said he is prepared to meet Trump for a third time, but only if the United States changes its negotiating stance.
“They are also showing efforts not to break the mood for talks,” Moon said.
Some experts took a less rosy view, arguing the tests were a signal that Kim is not prepared to return to talks on the terms being offered by Washington and that he is responding to the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign with pressure tactics of his own.
“This is becoming a game of chicken between Kim and Trump,” said Cheon Seong-whun, a former South Korean presidential national security adviser. “With neither of them swerving, this game can quickly develop into a dangerous one.”
In the latest tests, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said, the two missiles were launched in an eastern direction from Kusong in North Pyongan province. They flew an estimated 260 miles and 170 miles, respectively, the statement said.
On Saturday, Kim personally supervised a test of multiple rocket launchers and “tactical guided weapons” from the country’s east coast, according to state media. South Korea said the projectiles traveled between 45 and 125 miles. Acting U.S. defense secretary Patrick Shanahan told Congress that Saturday’s test involved “rockets and missiles.”
North Korea’s latest tests marked its first missile launches since it tested an ICBM in November 2017.
The launches were not entirely surprising. Pyongyang has been repeatedly signaling its frustration with Seoul over South Korea’s military exercises and cooperation with the United States, and with Washington for what the North sees as its hostile attitude and unilateral demands. North Korea had warned that it would respond.
Just days before Thursday’s test, Moon secured Trump’s approval to begin sending food aid to North Korea. South Korea also dispatched its unification minister Wednesday to a joint liaison office in North Korea in an attempt to restart dialogue, noted Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“For the Kim regime to test more projectiles on May 9 suggests it is not just making a show of strength for domestic politics,” he said. “It is signaling that Pyongyang is not interested in the engagement currently on offer from Seoul or in working-level denuclearization talks with Washington.”
Experts were still studying whether last week’s launch involved a short-range ballistic missile, which would contravene multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, but that had not been confirmed by Seoul or Washington.
Ballistic missiles arc high into the atmosphere and are considered more dangerous than other missiles because they can hit distant targets with larger warheads at speeds that are difficult for defenses to intercept.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to play down Saturday’s missile launch by suggesting it was “relatively short-range” and not a threat to the United States, South Korea or Japan. He noted that Kim had pledged only not to test ICBMs.
But South Korea’s presidential Blue House in Seoul expressed frustration. Spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said the launch “does not help at all with improving inter-Korean ties and alleviating military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which is very concerning.”
On Wednesday, just before the latest launches, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry argued that last week’s test was “regular and self-defensive.”
In a separate statement, North Korea’s military also noted that the “flying objects” had fallen into the country’s own territorial waters Saturday and argued that they did not threaten other countries. It called South Korea’s criticism brazen nonsense and criticized Seoul for keeping “mum” after the last U.S. launch of the Minuteman III ICBM, which it said was meant to threaten North Korea.
North Korea declared in April 2018 that it would discontinue nuclear tests and ICBM tests. But the U.N. Security Council, which has imposed steadily tighter sanctions on North Korea, has demanded that Pyongyang cease any launches that use ballistic missile technology.
Vipin Narang, a professor of international security studies at MIT, said the risks mount with each test by the North.
“Kim risks overshooting and provoking a furious Trump backlash if the latter feels betrayed,” he wrote in an email. “And if this is an attempt to pressure the U.S. to moderate its negotiating position, it may backfire: The U.S. may only harden it to avoid looking like it’s caving to North Korean tests and pressure. So, if this push-the-line strategy continues or intensifies, hold on to your hats.”