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Trump says tests by North don’t break agreement

American president offered opposing opinion to Shinzo Abe
Aug 27,2019
U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday said while he was “not happy” with North Korea’s recent weapons tests, they did not go against a promise to not test long range missiles, contradicting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s accusation that the tests violated UN resolutions.

Trump made the remarks at a bilateral meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 7 summit in France, before veering into the same apology he has given previously about the reasons behind the North’s provocations, saying he agreed with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that the U.S. combined exercises with South Korea were unnecessary and a “total waste of money.”

“[Kim] was upset that South Korea was doing the ‘war games,’ as you call them,” Trump said. “I don’t think they were necessary either, if you want to know the truth.”

Adding he would still “probably” have another meeting with North Korea on its denuclearization process, Trump then asked Abe for his view on the tests, to which the Japanese prime minister said the “launch of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea clearly violates the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

The opposing answer stood out as a rare instance of the two leaders expressing disagreement in a public setting. Trump, however, asserted he understood Abe’s assessment but added that it was “different” from his.

What followed was an odd exchange of assurances from both leaders that they were “on the same page” on the North Korean issue, though Trump meandered into his usual positive predictions that Kim “will do the right thing.”

“A lot of people are testing those missiles, not just [Kim],” he said. “We’re in the world of missiles, folks, whether you like it or not.”

The weapon the North tested on Saturday was labeled a “newly developed super-large multiple rocket launcher” by the country’s state media.

Photographs of this weapon released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency suggested it was similar to but had larger barrels than another new artillery piece tested by the North on July 31 and Aug. 2, which was believed to have a caliber of around 400 millimeters (15.75 inches). According to the South Korean military on Saturday, projectiles from the newer variant flew a distance of around 380 kilometers (236 miles) at a peak altitude of 97 kilometers, giving the weapon the range to strike nearly all key military targets in South Korea.

The North’s state media added epithets like “world-class powerful” or “peerless” for its new armament, suggesting it could be an entirely different weapon altogether.

North Korea’s heavy artillery poses one of the greatest threats to South Korea’s security - perhaps even more than its nuclear weapons. With Seoul located around 25 miles south of the inter-Korean border, some 25 million people residing in the South’s capital metropolitan area are exposed to the roughly 13,000 North Korean artillery pieces deployed on its frontier. It is this conventional weapons arsenal that North Korea has sought to upgrade and modernize with its latest string of tests, all the while engaging in a publicity tug-of-war with the United States over the yet to resume negotiations to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Over the span of just a month and more than seven different tests, the North introduced at least three new types of weapons - a domestic variant of the Russian-made Iskander missile, called KN-23 by the United States and South Korea, and a tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missile system akin to the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System, or Atacms, in addition to its multiple rocket launcher from July 31.

On Monday, in celebration of the Day of Songun, North Korea’s commemoration of former leader Kim Jong-il’s military-first policy, state media proudly broadcast its recent advances in military technology, saying several events are occurring simultaneously “that are elevating the political and military might of the Peoples’ Army.”

Analysts have noted major upgrades to the North’s rocket artillery that are making it as much a formidable threat as missiles. In fact, the outfitting of these pieces with guidance mechanisms and global positioning systems has made them increasingly difficult to distinguish from ballistic missiles, they say.

For South Korea, which has focused its expanding missile defense program on deterring ballistic missiles, Pyongyang’s developments in the field of rocket artillery underscore further challenges to its security. To address the artillery threat in particular, the South’s Ministry of National Defense included plans to upgrade its radar detection systems and its own guided weapons as components of its five-year defense spending blueprint announced on Aug. 14.

In an address at a security forum on Monday, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo assured the country’s military would maintain preparedness amid the North’s continued weapons tests while supporting the government’s diplomatic efforts to build peace through dialogue with Pyongyang.

Yet perhaps the bigger test to Seoul’s current security environment, which Jeong noted was “not an easy challenge” in his speech, stems from political causes. The Moon Jae-in administration’s announcement last Thursday that it would withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan over an ongoing diplomatic feud added strain to its relationship with Washington, which expressed unusually strong displeasure to the decision.

With Trump openly taking issue with the cost of the U.S.-South Korea military alliance, Seoul may find itself faced with footing a larger bill to keep U.S. troops in its territory as burden-sharing negotiations with Washington kick off in the coming months.

At the same time, expectations that it could offset its defense spending with diplomatic compromises with the North are becoming increasingly dim as Pyongyang continues to besmirch the South’s proposals for exchanges.

On Monday, Uriminzokkiri, one of the North’s propaganda outlets, released an editorial again accusing the South of betraying “basic trust” with its military exercises and calling further inter-Korean dialogue a “waste of time.”

As usual, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification responded with moderation, with its spokesman saying differences between the two sides can always be resolved at the negotiating table.

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