South Koreans watch on a screen a file image of reporting North Korea's missile launch on July 31, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: CHUNG SUNG-JUN / GETTY IMAGES
South Koreans watch on a screen a file image of reporting North Korea's missile launch on July 31, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. Picture: CHUNG SUNG-JUN / GETTY IMAGES

Seoul — North Korea fired missiles for the third time in eight days on Friday, a series of launches that analysts say are designed to improve military capabilities and pressure the US and South Korea as they seek to restart denuclearisation talks.

US officials, who have been hoping to revive the stalled talks with North Korea, played down the launches. The North has been testing missiles despite US President Donald Trump’s June 30 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, where they agreed to revive the talks.

The diplomatic process may have some bumps but conversations with North Korea are “going on even as we speak”, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said in Bangkok, where he is attending a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

South Korea’s government said the latest projectiles fired by the North appeared to be new short-range ballistic missiles.

The missiles flew 220km and reached an altitude of 25km, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Seoul said.

A US official said US intelligence had detected at least one projectile, and possibly more, that did not pose a threat to North America. US officials said initial information indicated they were similar to two other short-range missile tests by Pyongyang since last week.

North Korean state media said Kim oversaw the firing of what it described as a new large-calibre, multiple-launch guided rocket system on Wednesday. He also observed the launch of a short-range ballistic missile last week.

The launches appear to be intended to put pressure on South Korea and the US to stop planned military exercises later in August and offer other concessions.

Kim’s government was assiduously improving military capabilities as well as signalling negotiating demands with the tests, said Leif-Eric Easley, an international relations professor at Seoul’s Ewha University.

“The aim is not only to increase Pyongyang’s ability to coerce its neighbours, another goal is to normalise North Korea’s sanctions-violating tests as if they were as legitimate as South Korea’s defensive exercises,” Easley said.

‘No problem’

Trump was asked at the White House before he set off for a campaign trip to Ohio if he thought Kim was testing him and said the launches did not violate the North Korean leader’s promises.

Trump also said they were short-range missiles. “We never made an agreement on that. I have no problem,” he said.

While Trump says he never made an agreement on short-range missiles, the 15-member UN Security Council unanimously demanded in 2006 that North Korea suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and “re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching”.

The UN Security Council met behind closed doors in New York on Thursday to discuss the latest missile launches.

Representatives from Britain, France and Germany called on North Korea after the meeting to engage in meaningful talks with the US and said international sanctions need to be fully enforced until Pyongyang has dismantled its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Pompeo said the UN sanctions remained fully in place.

“We’re working with countries all across the world, many in this region, doing great work to enforce those,” he said.

Pompeo also said he was disappointed his North Korean counterpart had cancelled a planned trip to the Asean forum.

“I think it would’ve given us an opportunity to have another set of conversations,” he said. “I hope it won’t be too long before I have a chance to do that.”

Nuclear envoys from the US, South Korea and Japan held a meeting on the sidelines of the Asean forum on Friday, where they were expected to discuss the North’s latest missile tests and ways to restart working-level talks between the US and North Korea.

The Japanese ministry of defence said on Friday no immediate impact was seen on Japan’s security after North Korea’s latest launch.

Andrei Lankov, director of Korea Risk Group, a think tank, said Pyongyang’s recent missile tests do not mean it was no longer interested in talks with the US.

“On the contrary, the choice of the short-range missile is a sign that, for the time being, Pyongyang remains serious about making a deal with the US,” he wrote in a report for NK News, a website that monitors North Korea.