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North Korea conducts seventh missile test this year

Aug 12,2019
North Korea on Saturday conducted its seventh weapons test this year, firing two unidentified projectiles into the East Sea, the same day U.S. President Donald Trump received a letter from its leader Kim Jong-un apologizing for those very same launches.

The rockets, which South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said appeared to be short-range ballistic missiles, were fired early morning at 5:34 a.m. and 5:50 a.m. from an area near Hamhung, South Hamgyong Province. Each flew a distance of around 400 kilometers with peak altitudes of 48 kilometers at over Mach 6.1, the JCS said.

An English language report on the launch by state media on Sunday provided little elaboration on the projectiles other than that they were a “new weapon which was developed to suit the terrain condition of our country” and had a “tactical character different to the existing weapons systems.”

Kim guided the test-fire for the new weapon from an observation post and expressed “great satisfaction” to munitions officials afterwards, said the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report.

With Seoul and Washington in the middle of conducting combined military exercises, the South’s JCS said the North Koreans are also conducting their own summertime drills and may very likely launch further missiles in the days to come. The allies’ command post exercise kicked off on Sunday and are scheduled to continue until August 20.

The South’s Blue House said it concluded the North’s latest test was a military provocation meant to protest the drills, just as it had done four days earlier with a test last Tuesday and three more launches in earlier weeks.

This intent was apparently also made clear in a missive sent by Kim to Trump recently, which the U.S. President tweeted Saturday contained an interest in meeting to restart denuclearization negotiations once the joint exercises are concluded.

“It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises,” Trump wrote. “It was also a small apology for testing the short range missiles, and that this testing would stop when the exercises end.”

Trump added that he looked forward to seeing Kim in the “not too distant future,” and that a “nuclear free North Korea” would be one of the most successful countries in the world.

The president told reporters at the White House Friday that he had received a “very positive” missive from Kim, which he said was “three pages, right from top to bottom, a really beautiful letter.”

With Twitter brief, Trump appeared to concur with the North Korean leader in calling the military drills “ridiculous and expensive” -- epithets he gave to the exercises before, most notably after his first summit with Kim in June last year when he shocked Seoul by saying he would suspend join “war games” with South Korea.

Washington ultimately did not abolish the drills as Trump said he wanted, but it did agree with Seoul to scale down their major summertime exercises to a computerized command post exercise. On Sunday, the allies began the new drills with a South Korean general in charge for the first time, as a means to test Seoul’s initial operational capacity for an envisioned transfer of wartime operational control (Opcon).

To avoid provoking the North, the allies even chose to scrap the name “Dong Maeng,” or alliance, for the exercise, which they stressed was purely defensive in nature.

These measures, however, apparently did little to lift Pyongyang of its perceptions of being threatened.

Almost immediately after conducting its launches Saturday, the North’s KCNA released an editorial slamming the South for being the “harasser of peace and stability” on the peninsula with its drills and introduction of several new pieces to its defensive arsenal.

“The steady reinforcement of offensive military hardware in south Korea, a recognized biggest powder magazine in the Far East, will only increase the danger of war on this land with each passing day and further deepen mistrust and hostility between the north and the south,” the piece read.

“All the facts prove that the south Korean authorities hell-bent on arms buildup against the dialogue partner are the arch criminal escalating tension in the Korean peninsula and wrecker of its peace and stability.”

If Kim’s words to Trump are to be believed, such remonstrations could be serving to justify the country’s attempt to enhance its military capacity before returning to talks with Washington presumably at the end of this month.

Photographs from the weapons test released by KCNA on Sunday showed a rocket being launched from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) with a different exterior paint job from the missile fired last Tuesday or the rocket artillery the regime said it tested on July 31 and August 2.

Yet the speed and distance covered by the latest projectiles, experts say, make it likely they were short range ballistic missiles, though perhaps not the same Russian-made Iskander variants from earlier tests. According to Kim Dong-yub, director of research at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, the diverse ranges, shortened launch times and mobility of the launch unit in the TELs suggest the North may be trying to raise its capacity to deter the U.S. and South Korean military through just conventional, and not nuclear, weapons.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]