SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Thursday fired at least one unidentified projectile from the country’s western area, South Korea’s military said, the North’s second weapons launch in the last five days and a possible warning that nuclear disarmament talks with Washington could be in danger.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff didn’t immediately release details about what type of projectile the North fired and said it was still analyzing the launch. The projectile was launched from the Sino-ri area of North Pyongan Province, an area known to host one of North Korea’s oldest missile bases where a brigade operates mid-range Rodong missiles.
The launch comes as U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun visits South Korea, and hours after the North described its firing of rocket artillery and an apparent short-range ballistic missile on Saturday as a regular and defensive military exercise. The North also ridiculed South Korea for criticizing those launches.
South Korea’s presidential national security director, Chung Eui-yong, has been monitoring the situation while communicating with the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff by video, according to the presidential Blue House.
There was no immediate comment from the United States.
Some analysts have said that if the North returns to testing the kind of longer-range banned ballistic weapons that it fired in unusually large numbers in 2017 — when many feared a Washington-Pyongyang standoff could end in war — it may signal that a frustrated North Korea is turning away from diplomacy.
The tensions in 2017 were followed by a surprising diplomatic outreach by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, when he attended summits with the South Korean and Chinese presidents and with U.S. President Donald Trump. But North Korea has not gotten what it wants most from its summitry: sanctions relief.
A summit earlier this year between Trump and Kim ended in failure, with the United States not believing that North Korea was offering enough disarmament steps to agree to the widespread sanctions relief the North wants.
Just ahead of the Thursday launch, senior defense officials from South Korea, the United States and Japan met in Seoul to discuss North Korea’s launches on Saturday and other security issues. Details from the meeting weren’t immediately announced.
The Sino-ri missile base, which is in the area where Thursday’s launch happened, may have played a role in the development of the North’s solid-fuel “Pukguksong-2” that it first flight tested in February 2017, according to a January study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. That was the North’s first missile test after Trump took office.
Experts who analyzed photos from the North Korean state media say it’s clear the North on Saturday tested a new solid-fuel missile that appears to be modeled after Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile system.
South Korean and U.S. officials have described what North Korea fired as “projectiles,” a broader term that include both missiles and artillery pieces. This could be an effort to keep diplomacy alive as U.N. sanctions bar the North from engaging in any ballistic activity.
Some observers say the North could fire more missiles, including those of a medium range, to up the pressure on the United States. Others say North Korea won’t likely fire a medium-range missile unless it intends to abandon diplomacy for good as it’s certain to invite fresh U.N. sanctions.
North Korea last conducted a major missile test in November 2017 when it flight-tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that demonstrated the potential capability to reach deep into the U.S. mainland. Experts think the North still needs more tests to make its ICBMs viable.
Kim in a New Year’s speech said he hopes to continue his nuclear summitry with Trump, but also that he would seek a “new way” if the United States persists with sanctions and pressure against the North.
Following the collapse of his second summit with Trump in February, Kim said he is open to a third meeting, but set the year’s end as a deadline for Washington to offer mutually acceptable terms for an agreement.