- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2019

North Korea carried out a fresh round of short-range ballistic missile tests Thursday in what analysts called a pressure tactic from Pyongyang as it seeks to bully the Trump administration back to the negotiating table.

The launches, described by South Korean officials as a “new kind of short-range ballistic missile,” represent the first major weapons tests on the peninsula since President Trump’s historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the Demilitarized Zone last month. The White House hoped that meeting would kick-start stalled denuclearization talks with Pyongyang, but there’s been little visible progress in the weeks since.

In the absence of a breakthrough, regional specialists say Mr. Kim is returning to a tried and true playbook with Thursday’s weapons tests. The missile launches appear to be both a provocation aimed at gaining leverage in talks with Washington and a public protest against looming U.S.-South Korean joint military drills slated for next month.

North Korea is clearly upset that the U.S. and South Korea are conducting joint military exercises,” said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest. “Because of this, Pyongyang has refused to set a date for working-level talks with Washington, won’t accept food aid from Seoul and is now once again testing weapons systems that will surely increase tensions. We should not be shocked by this move and, in fact, we should have seen it coming.”

South Korean officials said the missiles were fired from mobile launchers and flew at a maximum altitude of 30 miles. Seoul’s Yonhap News Agency said that South Korea is trying to ascertain whether the weapons are the same type as those fired during an earlier round of tests in May.

“Our military is closely monitoring the situation in case of additional launches while maintaining a readiness posture,” said South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

North Korea described the launches as “routine” and “self-defensive,” according to Yonhap.

There was little immediate reaction from Washington Thursday. Neither Mr. Trump nor newly minted Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper mentioned the tests during public speeches at the Pentagon.

But U.S. allies publicly urged Pyongyang to cease provocations and restart denuclearization talks, fearful Mr. Trump’s precedent-shattering personal diplomacy with Mr. Kim was faltering.

“We maintain that North Korea must engage in meaningful negotiations with the U.S. and take concrete steps towards complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement.

The tests are just one piece of North Korea’s public leverage campaign. Pyongyang also recently released photographs of Mr. Kim inspecting a new military submarine, and analysts say the two moves underscore the nation’s broader strategy.

“The latest short-range missile tests are similar to the ones North Korea conducted in May this year,” said Srinivasan Sitaraman, a foreign affairs analyst and professor at Clark University.

“But juxtaposed with the pictures of Kim Jong-un in front of a submarine capable of carrying nuclear ballistic missiles, clearly North Korea is signaling to the United States and South Korea that it is displeased with proposed military exercises,” Mr. Sitaraman said in comments circulated to reporters Thursday.

The U.S. and South Korea say they will move ahead with next week’s Dong Maeng military exercise, a drill that is significantly smaller in scale that the ones the two nations have conducted in years past. Washington scrapped those larger drills as a diplomatic olive branch to Pyongyang, but the smaller exercises remain a sticking point for Mr. Kim.

Analysts say the road forward is unclear. North Korea has demanded immediate relief from crippling economic sanctions, while Washington has maintained that the regime must take tangible steps toward denuclearization before any sanctions will be lifted.

Staff writer Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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