North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with US president Donald Trump. Picture: AFP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with US president Donald Trump. Picture: AFP

Seoul — North Korea’s latest missile launches did not violate a pledge its leader Kim Jong-un made to US President Donald Trump, a senior US official said on Thursday, but efforts to resume denuclearisation talks remain in doubt.

Kim oversaw the first test firing of a “new-type, large-calibre, multiple-launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday, North Korean state media reported.

North Korean state television showed rockets launching from a vehicle that had been blurred in photos to obscure its features.

The launch came six days after North Korea tested two short-range ballistic missiles, its first tests since Kim and Trump met on June 30 and agreed to revive stalled denuclearisation talks.

The latest launches appear intended to put pressure on South Korea and the US to stop planned military exercises, analysts said, and came as diplomats criss-cross the region this week in the hope of restarting the talks.

“The firing of these missiles doesn’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong-un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles,” US national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business News. “But you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearisation will begin.” 

North Korea’s tests of short-range missiles over the past week happened despite the meeting between Kim and Trump on June 30 at the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas at which they agreed to revive their talks on North Korea’s weapons.

South Korea’s intelligence agency told law makers that more North Korean missile tests were possible this month, the Yonhap news agency reported.

UN secretary-general António Guterres believes the launches are ‘just another reminder of the importance of restarting talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’ 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Vipin Narang said the missile tests were part of the North Korean leader’s approach to diplomacy: “He’s saying it will take more than a photo opp to get things moving.” The tests were a stark reminder that every day the US and its allies failed to secure an agreement is a day that North Korea continues to improve and expand its nuclear and missile arsenals, he said.

US officials have played down the tests. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said this week that he still hopes talks will start soon, including possibly on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian security forum in Bangkok this week.

However, Bolton said there had been no response. “We’re still waiting to hear from North Korea.” 

A summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam in February collapsed after they failed to reconcile differences between US demands for North Korea’s complete denuclearisation and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.

‘Fat target’

The photos released by North Korea appear to show a type of multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS). Such systems form a major part of North Korea’s conventional arsenal, according to a 2018 assessment by the South’s defence ministry.

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, along with 8,600 field guns, 4,300 tanks, and 2,500 armoured vehicles, the ministry said.

Wednesday’s test verified the combat effectiveness of the overall rocket system and Kim predicted “it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon”, KCNA said, adding that the rocket system would play a major role in ground military operations. Such operations would most likely be directed at South Korea.

South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff (JCS) said the North had fired ballistic missiles that flew about 250km.

The missiles launched last week were a different type of short-range ballistic missile, which experts said are designed to make interception difficult. Ballistic missiles would violate UN resolutions designed to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and missile programmes.

Britain, Germany and France have asked the UN Security Council to meet on Thursday to discuss the missile launches, diplomats said. UN secretary-general António Guterres believes the launches are “just another reminder of the importance of restarting talks on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters.

The South Korean military also said a North Korean soldier had crossed the DMZ on Wednesday and asked to defect to the South.

South Korean nuclear envoy Lee Do-hoon met US special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) conference in Bangkok. South Korea’s foreign ministry said they discussed the missile tests and vowed diplomatic efforts for an early restart of working-level talks.

North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong-ho cancelled a visit to the Asean forum but Pompeo said the Americans are still open to a meeting.

China welcomed the US readiness to restart the working-level talks, top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said in Bangkok, following talks with Pompeo.

The US does not plan to make changes to this month’s military drill with South Korea, a senior US defence official said, despite the missile tests. “We have to do two things: we have to give the diplomats appropriate space for their diplomacy and help create an environment that is conducive to the talks when they resume ... and we have to maintain readiness.”