A missile is fired during the test in this undated photo released on Sunday by Korean Central News Agency. Reuters
North Korea said on Sunday leader Kim Jong Un supervised the test-firing of a "newly developed super-large multiple rocket launcher," another demonstration of its expanding weapons arsenal apparently aimed at increasing its leverage ahead of a possible resumption of nuclear talks with the US.
The North's Korean Central News Agency said Saturday's weapons test was successful and cited Kim as saying the rocket launcher is "indeed a great weapon."
Kim underscored the need to "continue to step up the development of Korean-style strategic and tactical weapons for resolutely frustrating the ever-mounting military threats and pressure offensive of the hostile forces," according to the KCNA.
The "hostile forces" likely referred to the United States and South Korea, whose recently ended regular military drills infuriated North Korea. The North has called the drills an invasion rehearsal and conducted a slew of missile and rocket tests in response.
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Some experts said North Korea aims to show off its weapons to try to get an upper hand ahead of a possible restart of nuclear negotiations, which remain largely stalemated since the second summit between President Donald Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February fell apart due to squabbling over US-led sanctions on North Korea. The two leaders met again at the Korean border in late June and agreed to resume talks.
Trump downplayed the latest launch, saying "Kim Jong Un has been, you know, pretty straight with me. ... He likes testing missiles but we never restricted short-range missiles. We'll see what happens."
South Korea's military said North Korea fired two suspected short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast on Saturday morning and that they flew about 380 kilometers (236 miles) at the maximum altitude of 97 kilometers (60 miles). It was the seventh known weapons test by North Korea in about a month.
North Korea has been pushing to develop powerful multiple rocket launch systems, whose projectiles resemble short-range missiles, some experts said. On Aug. 1, North Korea said it tested a large-caliber multiple rocket guided system, a day after South Korea said the North fired two short-range ballistic missiles.
Most of the North Korean weapons tested in recent weeks have shown short-range flight distances. This suggested North Korea still doesn't intend to lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, which would certainly derail the negotiations with Washington.
The latest North Korean launches came two days after South Korea said it would terminate its intelligence-sharing deal with Japan amid trade disputes between the US allies. Washington expressed its disappointment at the South Korean decision.
In a development that could possibly further complicate ties between Seoul and Tokyo, South Korea's navy on Sunday began two-day exercises on and around a group of islets controlled by South Korea but also claimed by Japan. Japan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the islets belong to Japan and called the drills "unacceptable."
South Korean navy officers said the drills are the first of two regular exercises held every year near the islets called Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese. They said the drills involve aircraft landing on the islets and warships maneuvering nearby. Local media said South Korea originally planned the first drills in June, but delayed them in consideration of relations with Japan.
Kim said the latest missile test was “an occasion to send an adequate warning to the joint military drill now underway by the US and South Korean authorities,” according to KCNA.
US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who has led working-level talks with the North Koreans, landed at a US military base south of Seoul, media reported, and was due to meet South Korean officials on Wednesday and Thursday.
Neither president's approach has led to a major breakthrough, however, and North Korea has resumed testing its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), while intelligence reports suggest it is preparing for a new nuclear test.
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"These provocative and dangerous maneuvers are a source of problems for maritime security," said Mao Ning, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stressing that "the United States must immediately stop these dangerous provocations."