People watch a TV broadcast of a news report on N.Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul on Wednesday. Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
North Korea’s latest missile launches did not violate a pledge its leader Kim Jong Un made to US President Donald Trump, a senior US official said on Thursday, but efforts to resume denuclearisation talks remained in doubt.
Kim oversaw the first test firing of a “new-type large-calibre multiple launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday, North Korean state media reported.
It followed six days after the launch of two similar short-range ballistic missiles, North Korea’s first tests since Kim and Trump met on June 30 and agreed to revive stalled denuclearisation talks.
The latest launches were intended to put pressure on South Korea and the United States to stop upcoming military drills and came as diplomats criss-cross the region this week in the hope of restarting the talks.
“The firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong Un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” US national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business News.
“But you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearisation will begin,” he said.
North Korea’s tests of short-range missiles on Wednesday and last week came despite a meeting between Kim and Trump on June 30 at which they agreed to revive stalled talks.
South Korea’s intelligence agency told lawmakers more North Korean missile tests are possible in August, the Yonhap news agency reported.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Vipin Narang said the missile tests were part of the North Korean leader’s approach to diplomacy. “He’s saying it will take more than a photo-op to get things moving.”
The tests were a stark reminder that every day the United States and its allies fail to secure an agreement is a day that North Korea continues to improve and expand its nuclear and missile arsenals, he said.
US officials have played down the tests. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this week he still hoped that talks would start soon, including possibly on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian security forum in Bangkok this week.
However, Bolton said there had been no response. “We’re still waiting to hear from North Korea,” he said.
A summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February collapsed after they failed to reconcile differences between Washington’s demands for Pyongyang’s complete denuclearisation and North Korean demands for relief of extensive international sanctions.
North Korea did not describe the newest weapons in detail or immediately release photos, but South Korean military officials said initial intelligence estimates suggested they were a type of short-range ballistic missile.
Such weapons could violate United Nations resolutions designed to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Britain, Germany and France have asked the United Nations Security Council to meet behind closed doors on Thursday to discuss the latest missile launches, diplomats said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres believed the missile launches were “just another reminder of the importance of restarting talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,”UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
Wednesday’s test verified the combat effectiveness of the overall system and Kim predicted “it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon,” North Korean state news agency KCNA said.
It said the rocket system would play a major role in ground military operations.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the North had fired ballistic missiles that flew about 250 km (155 miles).
The South Korean military also said a North Korean soldier had crossed the heavily armed demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas on Wednesday and asked to defect to the South.
South Korean nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon met US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Bangkok.
South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday they discussed the missile tests and vowed diplomatic efforts for an early restart of working-level talks.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho cancelled a planned visit to the ASEAN forum but Pompeo said the Americans were still open to a meeting.
The United States does not plan to make changes to this month’s military drill with South Korea, a senior US defence official said on Wednesday, despite the recent missile tests.
“We have to do two things: we have to give the diplomats appropriate space for their diplomacy and help create an environment that is conducive to the talks when they resume ... and we have to maintain readiness,” the US official said.
It comes after North Korea fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on Tuesday, prompting an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
North Korea has said it is open to diplomacy, but that Washington's overtures are undermined by its support for sanctions and joint military drills and arms buildups in South Korea and the region.
A US special envoy to North Korea said on Friday that Washington was ready to hold constructive talks with Pyongyang to follow through on a denuclearisation agreement reached by the two countries
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