North Korea fired two short-range missiles into the sea on Thursday, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said, after warnings from Pyongyang over military exercises between Washington and Seoul next month.
People watch a TV showing file images of North Korea’s missile launch during a news programme at the Seoul Railway Station [Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo]
The North has warned the annual military drill could affect the planned resumption of denuclearisation talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
The two missiles were launched just after dawn from Wonsan on the east coast and flew more than 430km before falling into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, the South’s military said.
“Our military is closely monitoring the situation in case of additional launches and maintaining a readiness posture,” it said.
“We urge the North to stop actions that do not help ease military tensions,” said Choi Hyun-soo, a defence ministry spokeswoman for South Korea.
Tokyo said the launches did not reach Japanese waters, with Japan’s defence minister calling Pyongyang’s move “extremely regrettable”.
“We have confirmed so far that they did not reach our country’s territory or exclusive economic zone,” Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters.
‘A sign of North’s frustration’
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Seoul, said the launch is seen as a sign of North Korea’s frustration at stalled nature of negotiations, primarily with the US.
“It’s also North Korea’s way of showing its displeasure against holding of military exercises next month between South Korea and the US forces. These exercises have been scaled down but they still do take place, and North Korea is not happy about that,” he said.
“There is a sense of frustration from North Korean point of view. They see in [US President] Donald Trump the best hope to get relief from sanctions, and this is a way of reminding the world and the US they are still nuclear-armed power, they still have unfinished business, and they want to get back to the negotiation table.”
Pyongyang last fired short-range missiles on May 9, which the US president called “very standard stuff” that, he said, had not affected his relationship with the North’s leader Kim.
Kim and Trump agreed to a resumption of dialogue at an impromptu June 30 meeting they held in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas.
Following that meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said working-level talks would probably start in mid-July.
But last week, North Korea issued a warning over the military drills, which have been held for years and were scaled down to ease tensions with the nuclear-armed state.
The North condemned the exercises as “blatant pressure” and a “violation of the spirit” of the joint statement Trump and Kim signed at their first summit in Singapore last year.
The North even hinted it could reconsider its moratorium on nuclear testing because of the drills, although the US State Department had remained upbeat over commitments made by Kim and Trump during the DMZ encounter and at a February summit in Vietnam.
At their first summit in Singapore in June 2018, Trump and Kim adopted a vaguely worded statement on “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” and agreed to “establish new US-DPRK relations”.
But the failure to reach an agreement over relief from US sanctions, and what the North was willing to give in return, led to the collapse of the leaders’ second summit in Hanoi.
Tensions rose in May, during the standstill in negotiations between Trump and Kim, when North Korea fired short-range missiles for the first time since November 2017.
“I don’t consider that a breach of trust at all. And, you know, at some point I may. But at this point no,” Trump said in an interview with Politico magazine at the time.
Asked on Tuesday whether any meetings were scheduled with the North, Trump said: “No, we just have a very good relationship. And probably they would like to meet and we’ll see what happens.”
Earlier this month, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Washington’s pattern of “unilaterally reneging on its commitments” by holding military exercises with South Korea was leading Pyongyang to reconsider its own commitments to discontinue tests of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
On Tuesday, state news agency KCNA reported Kim inspecting a large, newly built submarine, accompanied by missile programme leaders. It potentially signalled continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) programme.