North Korea Tests Trump’s Limits With Submarine Missile Launch

Jihye Lee and Emi Nobuhiro

(Bloomberg) -- North Korea fired what appeared to be a ballistic missile designed for submarines, testing President Donald Trump’s tolerance for weapons tests just hours after agreeing to restart stalled nuclear talks with the U.S.

The South Korean military said the missile was fired near North Korea’s eastern Wonsan area just after 7 a.m. Wednesday and flew 910 kilometers (570 miles) into space before falling in the sea. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the missile may have separated during flight, with at least one piece falling in the country’s exclusive economic zone near the southwestern prefecture of Shimane.

“The launch of this type of ballistic missile is a violation of United Nations resolutions,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in an emergency news briefing. “Japan strongly protests and condemns the action.”

The South Korean defense ministry said it couldn’t confirm whether the missile was launched at sea or from a land-based site.

The missile was the longest-range weapon that Kim Jong Un’s regime has tested since his last intercontinental ballistic missile test in November 2017, a move that may be designed to increase its bargaining leverage. The U.S. president has so far shrugged off a recent flurry of shorter-range missiles launches, with the State Department saying Tuesday that the two sides had agreed to resume working-level talks this week.

“North Korea is always trying to push the boundaries of what the international community will accept as far as they can go,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on Korean Peninsula issues. “Timing launches at moments when the United States is less likely to object certainly meets that goal.”

The State Department on Wednesday called on North Korea “to refrain from provocations,” abide by UN Security Council resolutions, engage in negotiations and work toward the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

Keeping Up With Plot of the Trump-Kim Nuclear Show: QuickTake

The test comes after former National Security Advisor John Bolton, a target of Pyongyang’s ire during his time in Trump’s White House, said Monday in Washington the U.S. can’t “simply pretend” North Korea is making progress toward denuclearizing, adding Kim will never give up his nuclear stockpile without more pressure.

U.S. and North Korea to Resume Stalled Nuclear Talks This Week

The talks were the first sign of movement since Kim and Trump met on the North Korean border on June 30. The two sides have made little progress since agreeing last year to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” as Kim seeks more sanctions relief than the U.S. is prepared to offer.

Pyongyang has repeatedly criticized Seoul for accepting high-tech American weapons such as F-35 stealth fighters. The advanced “fifth-generation” fighter jet made its public debut in the country Tuesday.

Kim has fired off at least 20 missiles in 11 different military tests since breaking a testing-freeze in May. The launches have included blasts from multiple rocket launchers and a new short-range ballistic missile known as the KN-23, which analysts said is nuclear-warhead capable, can strike all of South Korea and is designed to evade U.S. missile shields.

A launch of a submarine-based missile could demonstrate Kim’s progress toward a two-pronged nuclear deterrent capable of quick strikes on the U.S. and its allies from mobile launchers on land and hard-to-track submarines. If confirmed, Wednesday’s launch will have been the first time the regime has fired a missile specifically designed for deployment at sea since 2016.

South Korea said the missile tested Wednesday may have been from the Pukguksong group of submarine-launched weapons, which have ranges in excess of 1,000 kilometers. David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said based on details released about its flight, the missile could have a maximum range of about 1,900 kilometers.

The few pieces of information available suggest it could be a new solid-fuel missile known as the Pukguksong-3, according to Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Defense Posture Project for the Federation of American Scientists.

The test comes about two months after Kim inspected a new submarine that he said would soon be deployed to waters between his country and Japan, although weapons experts said the vessel appeared not yet ready for use.

“North Korea had been rolling out images of a new submarine over the past few weeks, and is of course interested in creating as survivable a nuclear deterrent as possible,” said Scott Harold, a senior political scientist for RAND Corp. “Nothing here suggests that they are in any way interested in complying with the sanctions regime or preparing to negotiate away their strategic capabilities.”

(Adds State Department comment in seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Sophie Jackman, Isabel Reynolds, Josh Wingrove, Iain Marlow, Shinhye Kang and Nick Wadhams.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net;Emi Nobuhiro in Tokyo at enobuhiro@bloomberg.net

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

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