(Bloomberg) -- North Korea greeted U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s latest trip to Asia with twin signals of frustration: test-firing missiles and withholding top diplomats from a chance at nuclear talks.
Kim Jong Un’s regime fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea early Wednesday, the South Korean military said, the second such test in less than a week. The launches came just hours ahead of Pompeo’s arrival in Bangkok for a regional summit, a stop that the top U.S. diplomat acknowledged wouldn’t include an anticipated meeting with the North Koreans.
The moves were the latest in a series of escalating efforts by Kim to extract a better offer from President Donald Trump before resuming negotiations over his nuclear program. More than a month after Trump and Kim agreed to restart working-level talks after their historic handshake at the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas, the chances of meeting appear seem further away.
“If North Korea wanted to hold talks with the U.S. in Bangkok, they would have sent a delegation that is the right level,” said Shin Bum-cheol, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in South Korea. “They are continuing to pressure the U.S. before they hold these working-level talks to get to a more flexible state.”
© Getty Images North Korea Fires
While Trump has repeatedly indicated that he won’t let Kim’s launch of short-range ballistic missiles disrupt negotiations, the tests are banned under United Nations sanctions and the weapons threaten South Korea as well as thousands of American troops there. While the U.S. has been quiet about the launches at the UN, the U.K., France, and Germany requested a closed UN Security Council meeting, expected to take place on Thursday.
Kim has given Trump until the end of the year to make a better offer, a deadline that has raised the specter that North Korea could resume nuclear tests in a U.S. election year.
Since the June 30 meeting between Trump and Kim, North Korea has touted a new submarine, fired off two rounds of missiles and raised repeated objections to military exercises that the U.S. plans to hold next month with South Korea. North Korea’s foreign ministry warned earlier this month that the drills could force the regime to reconsider its moratorium on major weapons tests.
Although Kim appears determined to preserve his relationship with Trump, he wants the U.S. show a greater willingness to relax the sanctions squeezing his country’s economy.
“We knew last week’s launches weren’t going to be the end for now,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a Seoul-based analyst with NK Pro. “That said, today’s launches seem to track with the behavior North Korea has shown vis-a-vis the U.S. over the past few months of escalating pressure without crossing the line.”
The launches from North Korea’s Hodo Peninsula began shortly after 5 a.m. Wednesday, South Korea’s military said. The missiles flew as far as 250 kilometers (155 miles) and reached an altitude of about 30 kilometers, traveling at a lower trajectory than similar weapons fired last week.
Weapons experts said the missiles fired Wednesday were likely the same as the ones North Korea fired last week -- its KN-23 solid-fuel, short-range ballistic missile. The two missiles fired last week traveled at a speed and trajectory that could enable them to avoid interception by U.S. antimissile systems on the peninsula.
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The Trump administration was aware of the reports of a missile launch from North Korea and would continue to monitor the situation, a State Department official said. The projectiles didn’t reach Japan’s exclusive economic zone and posed no threat to the country’s national security, the defense ministry said.
“If they threaten us and provoke us, North Korea’s regime and the North Korean military is with no doubt defined as our ‘enemy,’” South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said, in remarks suggesting that such actions could cause Seoul to reconsider its decision to downgrade the threat level of its neighbor.
The launch provided an awkward greeting for Pompeo, even if Trump has dismissed the tests of such “smaller” weapons. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Bangkok this week would’ve been the secretary of state’s first chance since June to hold working-level meetings with the North Koreans and he even brought along top nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun.
But Foreign Minster Ri Yong Ho skipped the meeting, the first time North Korea failed to send a top diplomat since 2009. Instead, North Korea’s ambassador to Thailand is set to attend, all but ruling out the chances of a meeting.
“We don’t anticipate that the North Koreans will be at the event in Bangkok, but if they are I look forward to the chance to meet,” Pompeo told reporters before reports of the missile launch. “We’ll see if they are there and if they are I’m confident we will meet.”
It’s not the first time the secretary of state has borne the brunt of North Korea’s snubs. The regime has previously accused him of “gangster-like” tactics and in April, North Korea demanded his removal from the nuclear negotiations.
Shin, of the Asan Institute, said the tactics show North Korean thinks it can wait for a better offer. “The closer it gets to year-end, North Korea knows that the Trump administration is getting anxious over a potential long-range missile test launch, and that Trump’s officials will return to the table with a slightly more flexible approach,” he said.
--With assistance from Justin Sink, Glen Carey and David Wainer.
To contact the reporters on this story: Jihye Lee in Seoul at email@example.com;Larry Liebert in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at email@example.com, Bill Faries
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