North Korea launched a short-range missile from the country’s northwest Kusong region at 4:29 p.m. and then another short-range missile at 4:49 p.m., South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement. Both missiles flew east over the Korean Peninsula, with the first one traveling 420 kilometers (260 miles) and falling into the sea, the joint chiefs said. The second flew 270 kilometers and fell on land.
The tests follow increasingly impatient demands for sanctions concessions from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the wake of his failed February nuclear summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Adding to the diplomatic pressure was the presence of the U.S.’s top nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, who was in Seoul meeting with South Korean officials Thursday.
The launches come six days after Kim supervised a military exercise in which he fired off several projectiles, including what non-proliferation experts believed was a short-range ballistic missile. While South Korean officials had played down the earlier tests, saying they were not a provocation, President Moon Jae-in was more critical to Thursday’s launches.
“I’d like to warn that if such tests continue, it could hurt dialogue,” Moon said in a live interview with broadcaster KBS TV on Thursday, the eve of his second anniversary in office. “North Korea appears to have significant frustration that the Hanoi summit ended without a deal. It is protesting to the United States and South Korea.”
The return to missile testing after a lull of 17 months challenges Trump’s decision to continue talks with Kim, since the U.S. president has often cited the lack of such provocations as evidence his approach was working. Although the weapons tested stopped short of breaching Kim’s pledge to refrain from launching longer-range missiles that could threaten U.S. territory, they violate United Nations resolutions banning North Korea from firing off ballistic missiles of any kind.
North Korea, which had been complaining about U.S. and South Korean joint military drills, called Saturday’s test a “reasonable strike drill” for its combat readiness, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. U.S. and South Korean officials appeared determined not to let the first transgression scuttle talks, with Moon’s office saying that he and Trump agreed in a telephone call that the approach was “effective.”
Still, non-proliferation experts said the strategy risked encouraging Kim to conduct more tests. The latest incident bolstered those concerns.
“Since the U.S. response was low-key, North Korea appears to think that this level of test would not cause problems and it can continue the tests,” said Jina Kim, a research fellow at Korea Institute for Defense Analyses.
The Kusong area has been a focal point of discussions around North Korea’s armaments for the past two years.
In February 2017, North Korea launched a Polaris-2 missile from a testing ground in Kusong, according to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Later that year — about a week after Moon became president — the regime fired off a Hwasong-12 from a second facility in the area. Both missiles have ranges that could strike Japan.
Then, just before Kim’s first summit with Trump last June, analysis of satellite imagery by the website 38 North showed that Kim was razing facilities in the area used to test missile ejections. Trump said after meeting Kim it was a “big thing” to have missile facilitates destroyed.
Cheong Seong-Chang, vice president for research planning at the Sejong Institute, said the tests were likely intended to appease domestic constituencies, such as military hawks, not satisfied with nuclear talks.
“North Korea is likely to continue testing short-range missiles,” Cheong said.