North Korea test fires rockets in Thanksgiving reminder of year-end deadline for U.S.
By Hyonhee Shin and Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – Breaking a month-long lull in missile tests, North Korea fired two short range projectiles into the sea off its east coast on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest try out its new multiple rocket launchers, South Korea’s military said.
The test-firing came as the clock ticks down on the year-end deadline that Pyongyang had given the United Stated to show flexibility in their stalled denuclearization talks.
It also coincided with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, and took place one day before the second anniversary of the North’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the North fired the two projectiles into the sea from launchers in the eastern coastal town of Yonpo at around 5 p.m. (0800 GMT).
The rockets traveled up to 380 km (236 miles) and reached an altitude of 97 km (60 miles), the JCS said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch was a threat to not only Japan but the region and beyond, though his defense ministry said the projectile did not enter Japanese airspace or its Exclusive Economic Zone.
“We will remain in close contact with the United States, South Korea and the international community to monitor the situation,” Abe told reporters.
The launch is the first since Oct. 31, when the North tested what it called super-large multiple rocket launchers, which had also been used in tests conducted in August and September that were overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea’s military expressed “strong regret,” urging the North to stop stoking military tension.
“Such acts by North Korea are unhelpful for efforts to ease tension on the Korean peninsula,” Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the JCS, told a news briefing.
Kim has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearization talks with Washington, but negotiations have been at an impasse after a day-long working level meeting on Oct. 5 ended without progress.
North Korea has been demanding the lifting of sanctions that are hobbling its economy, and its leader Kim Jong Un set the deadline for Washington to show more flexibility in April, raising concerns he could resume nuclear and long-range missile testing suspended since 2017.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said last week the year-end deadline was an artificial one, but could mean a return to “provocative” steps that preceded the past two years of diplomacy.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election next year, has repeatedly held up the suspension of long-range missile and nuclear bomb tests as a major achievement of his engagement with North Korea.
Analysts believe Pyongyang is trying to send a Thanksgiving reminder to the United States by demonstrating progress in weapons development on the anniversary of the 2017 ICBM test.
“Today’s launch fit a North Korean pattern of escalating pressure on Washington and Seoul ahead of Kim Jong-un’s year-end deadline,” said Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
North Korean officials have warned the United States to abandon its hostile policy toward the North or Pyongyang would walk away from the talks.
The North has demanded the lifting of sanctions against it and the abandonment of joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which it calls preparations for an invasion.
The test also comes a week after South Korea pulled back from a decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, a key element of security cooperation between the key U.S. allies in the region.
On Thursday, the Pentagon referred Reuters to the U.S. Forces Korea for comment. The State Department and the White House did not respond to a request for comment.
(Reporting by Jack Kim and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Naomi Tajitsu and William Mallard in Tokyo; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington, Editing by Angus MacSwan)