North Korea Testing Missiles Faster Than Days of ‘Fire and Fury’

Jihye Lee

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea fired two more ballistic missiles into its eastern sea -- the sixth such volleys in three weeks -- extending the regime’s most prolific run of tests since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

The weapons, which were likely short-range ballistic missiles, were launched from the Tongchon region in the southeastern province of Kangwon on Friday and traveled 230 kilometers (140 miles), South Korea’s defense ministry said. The test appeared consistent with Kim Jong Un’s push to demonstrate the ability to strike all of South Korea and parts of Japan with new hard-to-intercept missiles.

North Korea has tested 15 ballistic missiles since abandoning an 17-month testing freeze in May, exceeding the pace of launches in 2017, when Kim’s tests prompted Trump to threaten him with “fire and fury.” Trump has said he won’t let such incidents get in the way of talks between the two leaders, since North Korea has refrained from testing nuclear bombs or the larger, intercontinental ballistic missiles needed to carry them to the U.S.

Critics of Trump’s strategy say he risks needless giving up leverage in negotiations and could even encourage the regime to cross the U.S.’s red line on nuclear testing. Even the smaller ballistic missiles Kim has focused on since May represent a breach of United Nations sanctions and pose a threat to South Korea and the some 28,500 American troops stationed there.

“This is North Korea’s pattern. The fact that they’re making provocations is a sign that things aren’t going the way they want them to,” said Choi Soon-mi, professor of North Korean studies at Ajou University’s Institute for Unification near Seoul. “The number of missiles doesn’t mean much -- it’s simply North Korea pushing the U.S. for more talks in the way that it wants, including discussion of lifting economic sanctions.”

The White House was aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea and was continuing to monitor the situation in consultation with South Korea and Japan, a senior administration official said. Japan said the missiles fell outside its exclusive economic zone and posed no threat to its national security.

Trump said earlier this month that Kim sent him a letter offering “a small apology” for testing the missiles and expressed a willingness to resume talks after joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises come to an end next week. While Kim has described previous missiles tests as a warning to the U.S., North Korea focused its criticism Friday on South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The launch comes a day after Moon used a speech marking the anniversary of the peninsula’s liberation from Japan to assert that North Korea’s “provocations” haven’t disrupted dialogue between the two rivals. A spokesperson for North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country denounced Moon’s remarks as “reckless” while South Korea participates in the joint drills.

“His open talk about ‘dialogue’ between the north and the south under such situation raises a question as to whether he has proper thinking faculty,” the spokesperson said, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. “We have nothing to talk any more with the south Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again.”

The pair of ballistic missiles launched by North Korea just after 8 a.m. local time Friday reached a velocity six times the speed of sound and an altitude of 30 kilometers, a flight pattern similar to other difficult-to-intercept missiles tested in recent weeks. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the latest missiles were also KN-23s, a weapon that appears based on Russia’s Iskander model.

Moon, who has pledged to put the two Koreas on the path to peace before his single term ends in 2022, signaled a growing willingness to criticize Kim’s missile launches. His office said in a statement Friday that North Korea’s actions were causing “concern over heightened military tensions,” instead of previous messages calling them merely “unhelpful to the peace process.”

An official for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Pyongyang’s statement was “rude” and had crossed the line.

“Launching from different locations is an indication that North Korea is developing a wide variety of missiles,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy. “The fact that it is targeting South Korea as its subject for criticism shows North Korea doesn’t need South Korea anymore for negotiations.”

(Updates with Unification Ministry in penultimate paragraph.)

--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Peter Pae

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