North Korea test-fired two ballistic missiles Wednesday, its second launch in less than a week and latest apparent attempt to increase diplomatic pressure on the United States.
The missiles were launched from a central inland area in North Korea and splashed into the sea off the country’s east coast, according to a text message from South Korea’s military.
Few other details were immediately available, including what kind of missiles were launched or how far they flew. Japan’s defense ministry said the projectiles did not enter Japanese territory and fell outside Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
In a statement, the U.S. military said it is aware of the launch and has assessed it does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel, territory, or allies. However, the launch “highlights the destabilizing impact” of North Korea’s illicit weapons program, the statement issued by the Indo-Pacific Command said.
The launch comes two days after North Korea claimed to have test-fired a new long-range cruise missile. It was Pyongyang’s first known missile test in about six months.
Late last month, United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea appears to have recently restarted a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear site.
The moves suggest North Korea is trying to increase its bargaining leverage with the United States, amid stalled nuclear talks, some analysts say. The North has often engaged in diplomacy after raising tensions via verbal threats or weapons tests.
The North’s latest launch coincided with a visit to Tokyo by Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea, who is meeting with his counterparts from South Korea and Japan.
On Tuesday, the U.S. envoy repeated Washington’s offer to restart talks without preconditions, saying the United States is ready to work with North Korea on humanitarian issues “regardless of progress on denuclearization.”
While U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed a willingness to resume talks with North Korea, much of its focus has been elsewhere, such as the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and efforts to fight COVID-19.
“North Korea is expressing its discontent toward the Biden administration which has remained in a very passive policy toward North Korea in the name of a cautious and collaborative North Korea policy,” said Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Another possible factor, Bong says, is South Korea’s upcoming presidential election. So far, the campaign has featured very little discussion about North Korea; instead, candidates have focused on the economy and COVID-19 policy.
“North Korean leadership must have decided to increase the levels of the provocations as a way of getting more attention from all the relevant parties,” he added.
In June, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country is preparing for “both dialogue and confrontation” with the United States.
A few months later, North Korea briefly reopened several lines of communication with the South, raising hopes that Pyongyang would enter a new phase of diplomacy. But the North cut the hotlines just days later, after South Korea and the United States went ahead with joint military drills that Pyongyang sees as a provocation.
For most of this year, North Korea has focused on domestic problems, including natural disasters, pandemic prevention, and a food shortage. Because those crises still exist, some analysts expect North Korea may refrain from major provocations that would risk bringing further economic and diplomatic isolation.