People watch a news programme showing file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, May 9 2019. Picture: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP
People watch a news programme showing file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, May 9 2019. Picture: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP

Seoul/Washington — North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range missiles on Thursday, its second such test in less than a week and an apparent protest by leader Kim Jong-un  after President Donald Trump rejected his calls for sanctions relief at a summit in February.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who earlier cut short a European trip to return to Washington for meetings on Iran, would also have discussions on North Korea after learning of the launches, a senior US state department official said.

Under a week ago, Kim oversaw the test-firing of multiple rockets and a missile and coincided with a visit to the South Korean capital by US special envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun.

The two missiles fired on Thursday went in an easterly direction from the northwestern area of Kusong, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said. They covered distances of 420km and 270km  and reached an altitude of about 50km before falling into the sea, they said.

Pentagon spokesman Lt-Col Dave Eastburn said: "We're aware of the reports and monitoring."

"North Korea seemed to be discontented it could not reach a deal in Hanoi," South Korean President Moon Jae-in told South Korean broadcaster KBS, referring to a summit in Hanoi in February with Trump.

North Korea has effectively pulled back from engagement with Washington since the summit, which fell apart without agreement on US demands for the dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear programme and Kim's demands for relief from punishing sanctions.

Moon said that even if the missiles fired on Thursday were short range, they could still violate UN resolutions barring North Korea from developing its ballistic missile force.

Even so, Moon said he saw the tests as a sign that North Korea wanted to negotiate, and said he planned to push for a fourth inter-Korean summit with Kim.

Pompeo was due to meet Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga on Thursday afternoon in Washington in which the latter is expected to raise Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's hopes to set up a summit with Kim Jong-un.

‘Classic escalation tactics’

Analysts said it was too soon to say exactly what kind of missiles were involved in the latest launches, but the range would probably exceed that of most of the rockets North Korea fired on Saturday from its east coast into the ocean.

"North Korea has returned to its classic escalation tactics from before," said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum. "I believe they will keep escalating by using what appear to be short-range missiles, something that will not cause the US to react right away."

Harry Kazianis, of Washington's Center for the National Interest think tank, said the new launches could only worsen tensions.

"While this recent launch of short-range missiles does not violate Pyongyang’s promise to halt longer-range tests, North Korea has now made it clear it will not halt developing other parts of its military capabilities that threaten the region," he said.

"Kim’s goal, beyond ensuring his weapons programmes are becoming more powerful, is quite clear: to show America and its allies that if they aren’t willing to compromise on the terms of denuclearisation."

On Saturday, North Korea launched multiple rockets and at least one short-range ballistic missile.

That was the North's first test of a ballistic missile since launching an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017 and sharply raising tension at a time of stalemate in its talks with the US.

‘Self-defensive tests’

This week, North Korea lashed out at the US and South Korea, saying the weekend launches were "regular and self-defensive" and rejecting the notion that they were provocative. It criticised Seoul and Washington for carrying out military drills.

Trump and his administration played down the weekend tests, and in a Twitter message on Saturday, the US president said he was still confident he could reach a deal with Kim.

Trump has previously held up a freeze in missile testing since 2017 as evidence of progress with North Korea, while he and Pompeo have brushed aside Kim's demand for Washington to show more flexibility in nuclear talks by the year-end.

On Sunday, Pompeo said the weekend tests were short range, while the testing freeze had been "focused, very focused on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that stand to threaten the US". He said Washington wanted to "continue to work towards a peaceful resolution to achieve denuclearisation".

In November 2017, after North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) — which it said was capable of delivering a warhead to anywhere in the US — Kim declared his nuclear force complete

He then extended an olive branch to Seoul and Washington, holding two summits with Trump and three with the South Korean president.

A North Korean media report on Wednesday had hinted at the more tests, saying: "The south Korean military were astonished by the recent strike drill. It might fall into a swoon to see a strike drill involving more powerful cutting-edge weapons."

Reuters