North Korea Warns U.S. Talks at Risk After Latest Missile Tests

Jihye Lee and Josh Wingrove

(Bloomberg) -- Six weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump took his historic first steps into North Korea, talks with Kim Jong Un appear to be back on the verge of collapse.

North Korea’s foreign ministry renewed its threat to take a “new road” in negotiations with the U.S., saying Washington and Seoul would “pay a heavy price” if they continued to disregard the regime’s warnings against holding joint military exercises. The statement Tuesday came less than an hour after North Korea fired a new volley of short-range ballistic missiles into the sea -- its fourth such weapons test in two weeks.

While Trump has said the tests don’t violate his agreements with Kim, they do constitute of breach of United Nations resolutions and threaten American troops stationed on the peninsula. Kim has given the U.S. until the end of the year to make a better offer in nuclear negotiations, and the foreign ministry statement said the allies’ actions were making dialogue more difficult.

Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst with NK Pro, said the statement “seems to lay the groundwork for backing out” of Kim’s pledge to halt testing of nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles that can carry them to the U.S. mainland. “I am still skeptical that North Korea will start ICBMs and nuclear tests this year, but I don’t think it’s completely off the books,” she said.

No Talks

Tensions have steadily increased since Trump became the first sitting American president to set foot in North Korea on June 30 and agreed to restart working-level talks in two to three weeks. North Korea not only kept its top diplomats away from a chance to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in Bangkok last week, but repeatedly tested missiles during his trip.

The missiles launched Tuesday -- like other systems demonstrated recently -- appeared designed to evade allied defenses, flying low and fast before dropping into Korea’s East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan. They originated in the western province of South Hwanghae, north of Seoul, and flew about 450 kilometers (280 miles) at almost seven times the speed of sound, South Korea’s defense ministry said in a statement.

Trump has downplayed the short-range launches saying last week that Kim “does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!”

John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said on Fox News Tuesday that the North Korean launches appear to be “a testing series” to “get this missile fully operational.” He said Trump and Kim “have an understanding that Kim Jong Un is not going to launch longer-range, intercontinental range ballistic missiles. And so I think the president’s watching this very, very carefully."

Sharpened Sword

The tests came ahead of a visit to Japan on Tuesday by Trump’s new defense secretary, Mark Esper, who will later head to South Korea. The two U.S. allies have been locked in an escalating dispute over trade and their shared history that has sent relations between the two to their lowest level in decades.

The North Korea foreign ministry spokesperson denounced U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises that kicked off Monday, even though the current drills were dramatically scaled back after Trump and Kim’s first meeting last year. The statement described the exercises as an “undisguised denial and a flagrant violation” of its agreements with the allies, repeating North Korea’s claim that Trump told Kim at the DMZ that he would halt the exercises altogether.

“The U.S. and South Korean authorities remain outwardly talkative about dialogue, but when they sit back, they sharpen a sword to do us harm,” the foreign ministry said, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

But Bolton said the exercises are “largely computer-driven” rather than involving massive troop maneuvers. “North Korea has continued its exercises unabated, so they don’t really have a lot to complain about,” he said.

(Updates with Bolton comments starting in eighth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Justin Sink.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at jlee2352@bloomberg.net;Josh Wingrove in Washington at jwingrove4@bloomberg.net

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

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