- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The North Korean regime circulated images Wednesday of what are purportedly prototype designs for two new missile systems, just as Washington and Seoul entered the third day of their latest round of joint military drills on the peninsula.

Images of the new missile system designs, which were reased by state-media in Pyongyang, were reportedly captured during a photo shoot of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting one of the country’s military-run missile engine plants. Diagrams of the new Pukguksong and Hwasong-class missiles were spotted in the background of a picture of Mr. Kim speaking with military officials.

Publication of the images by North Korea‘s state-run Korean Central News Agency marked the latest provocation by Pyongyang since tensions with Washington reached new heights earlier this month.

North Korean saber rattling via its nuclear weapons programs prompted President Trump’s bellicose threats to rain “fire and fury” on Pyongyang, should it threaten American interests in the region. In response, Pyongyang had threatened to fire long-range missiles at the Pacific island of Guam, where some 6,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed.

Defense Secretary James Mattis responded at the time by saying the Pentagon has developed military options should North Korea attempt to launch attacks against U.S. territories in the Pacific. While the heated rhetoric has since subsided, analysts say Pyongyang continues to irk the Trump administration and its allies with subversive moves designed to ratchet up tensions in the region.

Wednesday’s release of images came two days after American and South Korean forces began the annual joint exercise dubbed Ulchi Freedom Guardian. The exercise is one of the largest joint military drills carried out on the peninsula, involving a number of the 28,000 U.S. troops based in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, as well as their counterparts in the South Korean military.

It had initially been unclear whether the U.S. would proceed with the drills, amid the heightened tensions that followed a pair of successful intercontinental ballistic missile test launches by North Korea in July. But the top U.S. military officer and the senior American commander in South Korea vowed to press ahead with the joint drills with Seoul, despite claims by the North that such exercises represent a direct threat to the regime in Pyongyang.

“The exercises remain important to us and we’ll continue to move forward,” Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said last month during a press conference at command headquarters alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford. The chairman was in South Korea as part of a diplomatic visit to the peninsula and China, in an attempt to soothe tensions in the Pacific.

Washington‘s efforts gained an unlikely ally, when China — North Korea‘s main backer and trading partner — recently announced plans to cut off North Korean coal, iron ore and other goods in compliance with new U.N. Security Council sanctions approved against Pyongyang in early-August.

Following an earlier U.N. resolution, in February, China had announced a ban on North Korean coal imports for the rest of 2017. But analysts say total trade between the two appears to have risen, prompting the Trump administration to double down on its accusation that Beijing is failing to use its economic leverage to stop Mr. Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

China’s customs agency has since said it will add iron, lead ores and fish to the coal ban as of midnight on Sept. 5. “After that, entry of these goods will be prohibited,” the Associated Press quoted an agency statement earlier this month.

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