SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea said on Friday its latest missile launch was a warning to South Korean “warmongers” to stop importing weapons and conducting joint military drills, a message that analysts said was also aimed at the United States.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un personally watched the test-fire of two short-range ballistic missiles on Thursday, the first test since Kim met with U.S. President Donald Trump last month and agreed to revive denuclearization talks.
The missile tests raises doubts about the revival of denuclearization talks, which stalled after the collapse of a second summit between Kim and Trump in Hanoi in February.
“We cannot but develop nonstop super-powerful weapon systems to remove the potential and direct threats to the security of our country that exist in the south,” Kim said, according to state news agency KCNA.
In a statement on Friday, Colonel Lee Peters, a spokesman for the combined command of U.S. and South Korean troops, said the launches “were not a threat directed at [South Korea] or the U.S., and have no impact on our defense posture.”
In public statements, Pyongyang has shown increasing frustration that South Korea has not followed through on promised economic cooperation or peace agreements, all while importing the latest F-35 stealth fighters and conducting military drills with the United States.
The KCNA report did not mention Trump or the United States, but said Kim criticized South Korean authorities for staging joint military exercises, which Trump promised to end after his first meeting with Kim in June 2018.
North Korea accused Washington of breaking that promise by planning to hold joint military exercises with South Korea next month and warned of a possible end to its freeze in nuclear and long-range missile tests.
While Friday’s message is very clearly directed at Seoul, it does send signals to Washington as well, said Jenny Town, managing editor at 38 North, a project that studies North Korea.
“On some level, this is like North Korea’s version of maximum pressure on South Korea and the United States.”
North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun showed photos of the missile launching, Kim Jong Un looking through binoculars and at screens appearing to show the missile trajectory, and smiling and clapping with his officials.
Kim said the test was “a solemn warning to the south Korean military warmongers” and accused South Koreans of “double dealing” for saying they support peace but simultaneously importing new weapons and conducting military drills.
South Korea’s leader should stop such “suicidal acts” and “should not make a mistake of ignoring the warning,” Kim said.
Kim said he was satisfied with the rapid response and low-altitude trajectory of the weapon, which he said would make it difficult to intercept.
Peters said the combined U.S. and South Korean command assessed the ballistic missiles as “a new type of missile” for North Korea.
Based on initial photos released by North Korea, the missile appears to be a similar type as those first launched in May, said Jeffrey Lewis, a missile researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).
At least one of the missiles on Thursday flew much farther, however, suggesting that the North Koreans may have made some modifications since May, Lewis said.
Ballistic missile tests would be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban North Korean use of such technology. North Korea rejects the restriction as an infringement of its right to self-defense.
When asked what message the Trump administration was taking from North Korea’s launch of short-range missiles, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that prior to U.S.-North Korea negotiations Pyongyang had been engaged in activity “far more dangerous for America and Japan and for South Korea”.
Pompeo said when Kim met Trump at the DMZ he had agreed to “avoid launching intermediate-range and long-range ballistic missiles” and “put his negotiating team back in the game”. He said fresh talks were still possible.
“You know, lots of countries posture before they come to the table,” Pompeo told Fox News.
Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Idrees Ali, and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler, Lisa Shumaker and Michael Perry