North Korea fired off what the South Korean military described as “several unidentified short-range projectiles” early Saturday local time in a move that could threaten to upset whatever diplomatic gains the U.S. has achieved with the country in recent years, the New York Times reported.
According to the Times, the incident was the “most serious by the North since the country launched its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missiles in November 2017,” though it has not yet stated it intends to break its voluntary halt of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests. It’s not clear what type of projectiles the North fired, the Times added, but South Korean officials said they only flew some 42 to 124 miles off the coast, ruling out the possibility they were ICBMs or intermediate-range missiles. It’s possible they were short-range Scud missiles or were otherwise launched from a multiple-launch-tube system, the Times cited South Korean officials as saying.
Similarly, it’s unclear what the impact on U.S.-North Korea negotiations over the latter country’s nuclear programs—a deal that Donald Trump’s administration has rolled out the red carpet for the country’s totalitarian dictator Kim Jong Un to achieve, but has seemed increasingly shaky as negotiations have stalled out and few concrete steps have materialized. North Korea has demanded sanctions relief, but at a February meeting in Vietnam, Trump reportedly said no such relief was coming until North Korea gives up all its nuclear weaponry. Kim’s government views those weapons as an ace up its sleeve that increases its bargaining power and precludes a foreign invasion.
It’s unclear what kind of reaction the North Korean military hoped to elicit on Saturday, beyond expressing dissatisfaction at the ongoing sanctions.
“Pyongyang is saying plainly that without progress in the talks, tests are likely to resume in full,” Federation of American Scientists senior fellow Adam Mount told the Times. “While it’s clear that this is meant to send a more restrained signal than a return to tests of longer range missiles that Kim Jong-un voluntarily paused, what’s not clear is whether the president will draw that distinction.”
Other experts suggested that rushing to conclusions would be dangerous, as the launches may be a desperate move amid sanctions that have kneecapped the North Korean economy, or that they are relatively routine tests of primarily defensive weaponry, the Times wrote.
On Saturday morning, Trump claimed that “anything in this very interesting world is possible,” but that he believed Kim would not renege on the deal.
According to CNBC, the White House recently tried to enlist Russian President Vladimir Putin to lean on Kim to denuclearize, but Putin instead told Trump he should relieve sanctions.
Per the Guardian, South Korean officials separately believe that the firing of the projectiles violated an inter-Korean agreement last year designed to reduce tensions. The Times wrote that President Moon Jae-in had actually been hoping to use recent reports of a famine in North Korea as an opportunity to offer new aid that might push along negotiations, according to the Sejong Institute’s Woo Jung-yeop.
North Korea recently claimed to have developed and tested a new “tactical guided” weapon, though it did not offer specifics.