(Bloomberg) — While Kim Jong Un said his latest missile tests were aimed at South Korean “military warmongers,” the North Korean leader had a clear message for U.S. President Donald Trump: Bend in nuclear talks or bigger provocations may follow.
Kim oversaw the “power demonstration fire” of a new-type of tactical guided weapon Thursday “to send a solemn warning” to his southern rivals, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch on the launch. The report came a day after the regime launched what South Korea said were two short-range ballistic missiles that executed maneuvers to avoid detection before plunging into the sea east of the divided peninsula.
Although the report criticized only Seoul — and made no mention of the U.S. or Trump — it referenced “moves to introduce the ultramodern offensive weapons” and “hold military exercises” as the reason for the provocation. South Korea has taken both actions at the urging of the U.S., and North Korea warned separately last week that the allies’ planned joint drills could jeopardize his willingness to resume talks the Trump administration.
“My reading of this report is that the ‘power-demonstration firing’ was targeted at both the U.S. and South Korea,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst with NK Pro. “By omitting any explicit mention of the U.S. in today’s report, North Korea sent the signal that it remains interested in talking with the U.S.”
The missile tests were part of a pattern of moves by Kim to signal his frustration with the U.S. just weeks after he agreed to restart talks during a historic meeting with Trump at the Demilitarized Zone. At the same time, Kim has attempted to preserve his relationship with Trump, sparing the American president from criticism and only testing weapons that don’t violate his pledge to not launch missiles that could reach the U.S.
Trump appeared to validate that strategy during a television interview Thursday in which he shrugged off the latest weapon tests. “They really haven’t tested to missiles other than, you know, smaller ones, the — which is something that lots test,” the president told the “Hannity” show on Fox News.
The missiles fired by North Korea Thursday could threaten all of South Korea, where some 28,500 U.S. troops are based, and violate United Nations sanctions. They were launched just hours after U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton departed Seoul.
Earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told Bloomberg News that the door for diplomacy with North Korea remained open despite the launches and that he hoped working-level talks would begin in the next month or so. “Everybody tries to get ready for negotiations and create leverage and create risk for the other side,” Pompeo said in an interview.
Pompeo might also miss a chance to meet his North Korean counterpart at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gatherings in Bangkok next week. Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho won’t attend the meeting, the Yonhap News Agency reported Thursday, citing an unidentified person close to the matter.
Almost a month after Trump and Kim announced working-level talks, negotiating teams have yet to meet and discuss the leaders’ agreement last year to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” The two sides have been divided over the scale of disarmament steps offered by Kim and the pace of sanctions relief proposed by the Americans.
Images released by North Korea indicated it fired off its KN-23 solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missile that looks like a local variation on Russia’s Iskander, weapons experts said. The two missiles flew at least 600 kilometers (370 miles) and traveled at a speed and trajectory that could enable them to avoid interception by U.S. antimissile systems on the peninsula.
In flamboyant rhetoric reminiscent of when Kim and Trump were trading nuclear threats in 2017, the North Korean state media report said the weapon test “must have given uneasiness and agony to some targeted forces.” They flew farther than similar weapons tested in May, before falling into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan.
The test also appeared designed to cause domestic problems for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has made improving relations with Pyongyang a central focus of his administration. That has forced Moon to balance Kim’s demands for security guarantees with the U.S.’s efforts to maintain the alliance.
“The relationship between South and North Korea as well as North Korea’s relationship with the U.S. has had many developments but there is a long way to go,” Moon said at an event at presidential offices Friday. “That’s the situation that we’re in.”
North Korea, which has for decades sought to weaken the U.S. military position on the peninsula, has found a receptive audience in Trump who granted Kim’s requests to scale back military exercises and criticized the cost of maintaining the alliance. Friday’s KCNA report is only the most recent example of North Korean threats against allied efforts to conduct lower-level military drills and deploy advanced weaponry such as F-35 fighter jets to the peninsula.
“I see this as the North trying to cancel or shrink the military exercises and diminish U.S. military assets,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
(Adds comments from analysts and Moon)
–With assistance from Rita Devlin Marier, Shinhye Kang, Eunkyung Seo, Greg Sullivan, Josh Wingrove and Sebastian Tong.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org;John Harney in Washington at email@example.com
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