People watch a TV broadcast showing file footage of North Korean missiles, during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station, in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2019.
People watch a TV broadcast showing file footage of North Korean missiles, during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station, in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2019. North Korea reportedly launched two projectiles off its east coast early Thursday.

This report was last updated on July 25, 2019, at 4:27 p.m.

Jeff Seldin at the Pentagon contributed to this report.

SEOUL — North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast early Thursday, South Korea said, a move apparently aimed at increasing Pyongyang’s leverage in nuclear talks with the United States.

South Korea’s National Security Council determined North Korea fired a “new type of short-range ballistic missile,” the presidential Blue House said in a message to reporters. The NSC expressed “strong concern” about the launch, saying it does not help reduce military tensions.

The missiles were launched from around North Korea’s eastern city of Wonsan in an eastward direction before splashing into the sea, South Korea’s military said. The first missile traveled an estimated 430 kilometers and the second traveled 690 kilometers, it added.

Seoul earlier estimated that both missiles traveled 430 kilometers, leading some observers to compare the projectiles to the short-range, quasi-ballistic missiles that North Korea tested in May. Those missiles had an estimated range of 450 kilometers.

South Korea appears to view the latest missile test as a more serious escalation. After the May launch, it took weeks before South Korean officials referred to the weapons as “missiles,” instead of the more innocuous sounding “projectiles.” This time, Seoul is referring to the projectiles as "ballistic missiles," which would represent a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

At a State Department briefing Thursday, spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said, "What the president has said and what the president has stressed, and the secretary, as well, is that we want to have diplomatic engagement with the North Koreans. And we continue to urge the North Koreans to resolve all of the things that the president and Chairman Kim [Jong Un] have talked about through diplomacy. We urge no more provocations, and that all parties should abide by our obligations under security council resolutions."

A U.S. Defense Department official said the launches "were not a threat" directed at South Korea or the U.S. and "have no impact on our defense posture." 

DMZ handshake, then no talks

The launches underscore the failure of U.S. officials to advance working-level nuclear talks with North Korea, despite three meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim.

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019.

It has been less than a month since Trump shook hands with Kim at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas — a meeting White House officials portrayed at the time as a breakthrough.

Since then, North Korea has not responded to U.S. requests to begin working-level negotiations. Instead, the North has continued escalating provocations and threats, in what analysts say is an attempt to improve its negotiating position.

Last week, North Korea’s foreign ministry hinted Pyongyang could forego the talks, and may resume intercontinental ballistic missile launches and nuclear tests, if the United States and South Korea go ahead with planned joint military exercises.
 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a submarine factory in an undisclosed location, North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 23, 2019.

On Tuesday, North Korean state media published photos of Kim and several other top military officials inspecting a newly built submarine that apparently can carry nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

Taking advantage

The provocations are a reminder that North Korea is taking advantage of the stalled talks to continue developing its nuclear and weapons programs, despite Trump’s insistence that talks are progressing.

“The Kim regime likely times these tests for international signaling purposes, applying political pressure on the U.S. and South Korea in an effort to get more for less in future negotiations,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“This contrast raises questions about North Korean intentions,” Easley said. “Kim’s plan appears to be keeping his country relatively closed and nuclear armed, while pocketing any political or economic benefits on offer.”

North Korea in May launched what appeared to be its version of the Russian-made ISKANDER quasi-ballistic missile, which, though short-range, is able to be maneuvered in-flight and is apparently designed to evade South Korean and U.S. missile defenses.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from conducting any ballistic missile activity.

In an apparent effort to preserve the talks, Trump and other top White House officials refused to criticize the May missile tests, noting that short-range missile launches do not violate Kim’s self-imposed moratorium. Kim in April 2018 declared a halt to all nuclear and ICBM tests.

Analysts have said that by ignoring the missile launches, the United States and South Korea were virtually ensuring Kim would continue short-range tests. Many are now calling for a firmer U.S. response to the latest launch.

“Trump, the U.N. Security Council and Seoul should not turn a blind eye to short-range ballistic missile tests. They can react without killing diplomacy,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

The United States has not responded to the latest launches.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, right, talks with South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon Chul during a meeting at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, May 10, 2019.

U.S. approach to talks

North Korea has given the United States until the end of the year to change its approach to the talks. Pyongyang wants the U.S. to provide security guarantees and relax sanctions in exchange for steps to partially dismantle its nuclear program.

Trump insists he is in no hurry to reach a deal, insisting his friendship with Kim will eventually persuade the young North Korean leader to give up his nuclear weapons.

“Our relationship with North Korea has been very good,” Trump said Monday. “We’ve really established a good relationship with Kim Jong Un. I have personally. There’s no rocket testing. There’s no missile testing.”

At their first meeting last June in Singapore, Trump and Kim agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But the two sides have been unable to agree on what denuclearization means or how to move the process forward.

North Korea’s latest launch demonstrates the limits of Trump’s personal outreach to Kim, said Vipin Narang, a nuclear and geopolitical expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It suggests what many feared: that Trump ceded leverage to Kim by acting like he wanted a deal — or talks — more than Kim did, and went to him,” Narang said.

“But as Kim is pointing out: you came, but you didn’t change your negotiating position or attitude, and you’re going ahead with exercises, which you said you wouldn’t do after Singapore. So here’s a reminder of where things can go: I need more than a handshake,” Narang added.