North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range missiles on Thursday less than a week after its leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the test-firing of multiple rockets and a missile.
South Korea’s president said the tests seemed to be a protest by North Korea after Kim and US President Donald Trump failed to reach agreement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile arsenal at a February summit in Vietnam.
“North Korea seemed to be discontented it could not reach a deal in Hanoi,” President Moon Jae-in said in an interview with South Korean broadcaster KBS.
The two missiles were fired from the northwest area of Kusong, in an easterly direction, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Analysts said it was too soon to say exactly what kind of missiles they were after flying about 420km and 270km before crashing into the sea.
“You don’t know what missile it is just from how far it flew,” said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.
Tensions are rising at a time of stalemate in nuclear talks with the United States.
“North Korea has returned to its classic escalation tactics from before,” Yang said. “I believe they will keep escalating by using what appear to be short-range missiles, something that will not cause the US to react right away.”
Analysts have warned if North Korea returns to the kind of longer-range banned weapons it tested in 2017 – when many feared a Washington-Pyongyang standoff could end in war – it would be a strong sign that a frustrated North Korea is turning away from diplomacy.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House called the missile launches “very worrisome” and unhelpful for efforts to reduce tensions on the peninsula and improve Korean relations amid protracted talks on denuclearisation.
This week, North Korea lashed out at the US and South Korea, saying Saturday’s tests were “regular and self-defensive” and rejecting the notion that they were provocative.
North Korea and the US are currently deadlocked in diplomacy meant to rid the North of its nuclear arsenal.
Late on Wednesday, Stephen Biegun, the US special representative on North Korea, arrived in Seoul for talks with South Korean officials on the allies’ approach towards Pyongyang.
It is Biegun’s first visit to Seoul since the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim collapsed without an agreement.
North Korea wants widespread sanctions relief in return for disarmament steps that the US has apparently seen as insufficient.
Longer-range ballistic missile tests, banned by the United Nations and seen as threatening by surrounding countries, would likely result in more sanctions.
Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington have refrained from calling Saturday’s launch a missile, which could jeopardise the ongoing diplomacy by violating UN Security Council resolutions, as well as Kim’s promise of a freeze on long-range missile tests.
The North has said Saturday’s drill involved multiple Pyongyang “long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons”.
But experts say North Korea launched at least one short-range missile during the exercise, with a report on the 38 North website suggesting it was a “direct import” of a Russian-produced Iskander missile.
“The debris generated by the launch in North Korea is a virtual match of a launch of Iskander conducted by Russia,” it said.
If North Korea imported Iskanders from Russia, the report added, “it has an existing capacity to deliver warheads to targets in South Korea with great precision”.