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Door to North Korea Remains Open Despite Missile Tests

By Alicia Sanders-Zakre and Kelsey Davenport

Photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. overseeing weapons tests at an undisclosed location in May. KCNA/EPA

While Alicia Sanders-Zakre is research assistant, Kelsey Davenport, is director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, which carried this report on May 21, 2019.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (IDN-INPS) – The next steps for U.S. diplomacy with North Korea remain unclear after Pyongyang tested several short-range ballistic missiles in early May.

Despite the missile tests, South Korea and the United States urged a resumption of dialogue. [2019-05-22

North Korea, however, has said little about returning to talks since Chairman Kim Jong Un declared in April that he would give the Trump administration until the end of the year to change its approach to negotiations or face a "bleak and very dangerous" situation. 

North Korea tested a salvo of rockets May 4 (North Korea time), including a new type of solid-fueled short-range ballistic missile that has not been launched before. This was North Korea’s first ballistic missile test since November 2017.

On May 9, North Korea conducted another drill that included two short-range ballistic missiles, likely the same missile tested May 4. The U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that it tracked the missiles and estimated the range at about 300-400 kilometers. Analysts observed that the new short-range system resembles the Russian Iskander missile, which has a range of about 280 kilometers and can evade missile defense systems, in part due to its in-flight maneuverability.

"The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons," North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported. Kim observed the test, and according to KCNA, expressed "great satisfaction" with the drill.

North Korea may be developing the new missile system in response to the U.S. deployment of the THAAD theater ballistic missile defense system in South Korea in 2017. North Korea condemned a recent South Korean military training on THAAD in a May 10 commentary in Rodon Sinmum, calling the drill a "military provocation" and demanding Washington cease such "acts of hostility."

The United States and South Korea continued to encourage the resumption of negotiations following North Korea’s tests, noting that the short-range missile launches did not violate North Korea’s commitment in April 2018 not to test long-range ballistic missiles.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in an interview with Politico May 10 that he did not think the missile launches represented a "breach of trust." Trump said that he knows North Korea wants to negotiate, but Pyongyang may not be ready to resume talks right now.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized that the missile tests did not represent a threat to the United States, South Korea or Japan." We still believe that there is an opportunity to get a negotiated outcome where we get fully verified denuclearization," Pompeo told ABC’s This Week May 5.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said May 9 that the launches did not break the Panmunjom agreement between North and South Korea. He said that while the tests were an expression of "discontent" from North Korea, Pyongyang was" being very careful not to disrupt the atmosphere for talks."

Trump is expected to travel to Seoul in late-June to meet with Moon following the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 May 2019]

Photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. overseeing weapons tests at an undisclosed location in May. KCNA/EPA

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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