By Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles early on Wednesday, the South Korean military said, only days after it launched two similar missiles intended to pressure South Korea and the United States to stop upcoming military drills.
The latest launches were from the Wonsan area on North Korea’s east coast, the same area from where missiles were fired last week, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement. It said it was monitoring in case of more launches.
The JCS said later the North had fired ballistic missiles that flew about 250 km (155 miles) and that they appeared to be similar to those launched last week.
Wednesday’s launch follows ballistic missile firings on July 25, North Korea’ first missile tests since leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met on June 30 and agreed to revive stalled denuclearisation talks.
“North Korea’s actions do not help ease military tensions, nor do they help keep the momentum for talks that are under way,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters. She urged North Korea to halt the missile launches.
The White House, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both played down last week’s launches and Pompeo has continued to express hope for a diplomatic way forward with North Korea.
Colonel Lee Peters, a spokesman for U.S. military forces in South Korea, said: “We are aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
A South Korean defence official said initial estimates showed the missiles fired on Wednesday could be similar to those last week, although they were still working to confirm details.
Dubbed the KN-23, those missiles are designed to evade missile defence systems by being easier to hide, launch, and manoeuvre in flight, experts said.
Kim described the two KN-23s launched last week as having a “low-altitude gliding and leaping flight” pattern that would make them hard to intercept.
Analysts said the range and altitude of Wednesday’s flights could indicate a test of those capabilities.
South Korean defence minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told a defence forum in Seoul that stopping a missile like the KN-23 would be difficult, although South Korea’s missile defence systems would be able to detect and intercept them.
South Korea’s defence ministry also told lawmakers in Seoul it had concluded that a new submarine the North showcased last week was capable of carrying up to three ballistic missiles.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said there was no impact from Wednesday’s launch on Japan’s security.
“We will continue to closely cooperate with the United States and others,” Abe told reporters.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan would still seek a summit with North Korea, without conditions, despite the latest launch.
Trump and Kim met on June 30 in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas but Pyongyang has since accused Washington of breaking a promise by planning to hold joint military exercises with South Korea next month and warned those drills could derail talks.
North Korea has also warned of a possible end to its freeze on nuclear and long-range missile tests that has been in place since 2017, which Trump has repeatedly upheld as evidence of the success of his engagement with Kim.
A top South Korean official said last month the drills would mainly involve computer simulations.
Henri Feron, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, said the United States and South Korea may need to consider a temporary suspension of the drills, or at least propose other measures to reduce tensions.
“I do think there is a high risk that talks will end altogether if Washington and Seoul continue to ignore North Korea’s concern with the exercises,” he said.
A February summit between Trump and Kim in Vietnam collapsed after they failed to reconcile differences between Washington’s demands for Pyongyang’s complete denuclearisation and North Korean demands for sanctions relief.
Trump says he has a good relationship with Kim and Pompeo said on Monday he hoped working-level talks could occur soon.
Pompeo told reporters travelling with him on a visit to Asia on Tuesday he did not know when this would happen but hoped U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and his new counterpart could meet soon.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho cancelled a planned visit to a Southeast Asian security forum in Bangkok this week but Pompeo said the Americans were still open to a meeting.
A senior U.S. administration official said earlier on Tuesday a North Korean official told a White House National Security Council counterpart last week such talks would start very soon.
Harry Kazianis, of Washington’s Center for the National Interest think tank, said the latest launches were a clear attempt by North Korea to put pressure on Washington.
Other analysts have said North Korea will be emboldened to press more aggressively for U.S. concessions by Trump’s apparent eagerness to hold up his engagement with Pyongyang as a foreign policy success ahead of his 2020 reelection bid.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in SEOUL, Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Additional reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Sonya Hepinstall and Paul Tait)