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North Korea's latest short-range missile launch complicates U.S. attempts for talks

Reuters 2019-08-23 23:09:00

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast on Saturday, the South Korean military said, the latest in a series of launches in recent weeks amid stalled denuclearisation talks.

Saturday’s launch was the seventh by North Korea since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met at the inter-Korean border in June. The launches have complicated attempts to restart talks between U.S. and North Korean negotiators over the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

The two leaders agreed in June to restart working-level negotiations but the United States has so far been unsuccessful in its attempts to get the talks going again. The process has been stalled since an unsuccessful second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February.

Trump said earlier this month Kim told him he was ready to resume talks on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes and would stop missile testing as soon as U.S.-South Korea military exercises ended.

However, while the joint military drills are over, North Korea’s continued launches caused “strong concern”, South Korea’s National Security Council (NSC) said on Saturday.

North Korea has repeatedly criticised the mostly computer- simulated drills in recent weeks, as well as South Korea’s import of high-tech weapons such as F-35 stealth jets and the U.S. testing of its intermediate-range cruise missile as threatening and hindering dialogue.

North Korea’s top diplomat called U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “diehard toxin” on Friday, saying: “We are ready for both dialogue and standoff.”

The remarks came after U.S. envoy on North Korea Stephen Biegun was in Seoul this week to discuss ways to get negotiations back on track.

“We are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea,” Biegun said on Wednesday.

JAPAN LODGES PROTEST

South Korea’s NSC called for North Korea to stop escalating military tensions and agreed to make diplomatic efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table with the United States as soon as possible, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement.

A senior U.S. administration official said: “We are aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea and continue to monitor the situation. We are consulting closely with our Japanese and South Korean allies.”

Japanese Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya said North Korea’s missile launches were a clear violation of U.N. resolutions and could not be ignored. He confirmed that missiles fell outside Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone and posed no immediate threat to Japan’s security.

Japan’s Jiji news agency reported that Tokyo believed the latest projectiles launched by the North were ballistic missiles and had lodged a strong protest with Pyongyang.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JSC) said North Korea had fired what appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles on Saturday at around 6:45 a.m. and 7:02 a.m. KST (2145 and 2202 GMT Friday) from around Sondok in South Hamgyong Province. Sondok is the site of a North Korean military airfield.

They flew about 380 km (236 miles) and reached an altitude of about 97 km (60 miles), the JSC said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two North Korean missiles appeared to be similar to launches in recent weeks.

Japan’s Coast Guard warned shipping not to approach any fallen debris.

South Korea scrapped an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan this week over a long-running dispute with Tokyo about South Koreans pressed into forced wartime labour by Japan.

Asked if that affected Japan’s ability to gather and analyse information about North Korea, Iwaya said: “The agreement was until November, so we want to continue cooperation with the South Korean and American militaries.”

“So we’d like to make that offer to the South Korean side,” he said.

South Korea officially informed Japan on of its decision to scrap the intelligence-sharing agreement on Friday, which Iwaya said was regrettable and showed that Seoul failed to appreciate the growing security threat posed by North Korea.