WASHINGTON - The highest-ranking military officer in the United States is downplaying the latest missile launch by North Korea, even though it could be a few more days before military analysts are done with their assessments.
“I don’t think it is particularly provocative or threatening to us,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon Tuesday.
“These were not any particularly big missiles,” he said, adding that the timing of the launch might have more to do with events playing out in Pyongyang.
“It may be tied to some celebrations that are happening inside North Korea as opposed to any deliberate provocation against us,” Milley said.
The missile launches earlier Tuesday came on the eve of a holiday marking the birthday of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.
Early reports from the South Korean military suggested the test involved two types of missiles: short-range cruise missiles launched from North Korea’s east coast and air-to-ground missiles fired from a fighter jet.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said its assessments of the launch were also ongoing, and that it was in contact with U.S. officials.
Despite failing to get much of a reaction from top U.S. military officials, there may be reason to take notice of North Korea’s actions, some officials and analysts warn.
Tuesday’s test is the fifth in a string of short-range missile launches carried out by Pyongyang this year. And it came just a day before South Koreans are to go to the polls to vote on the 300-member National Assembly.
Some analysts have suggested the missile launch could be part of a last-ditch effort to influence the election, though others believe North Korea may simply be wanting attention.
“This (election) cycle, there has been less debate in Seoul about relations with Pyongyang because COVID-19 has taken up so much political bandwidth,” according to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
The U.S., under President Donald Trump, has been trying to engage with Pyongyang to get the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, something U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly said is unlikely.
Those talks stalled last year, but Trump and Kim have continued to correspond.
North Korea’s state-run news agency said Trump sent a letter to Kim last month, offering to help the country battle the coronavirus pandemic.
But in the face of the latest missile test, U.S. officials found themselves using familiar language.
"We are aware of media reports and are currently assessing the situation,” a senior administration official said when asked about the North Korean test launch.
“We continue to call on North Korea to avoid provocations, abide by obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolutions and return to sustained and substantive negotiations to do its part to achieve complete denuclearization,” the official added.
Bill Gallo contributed to this report.