By Hyonhee Shin and Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – Breaking a month-long lull in missile tests, North Korea fired two short range projectiles into the sea off its east coast on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest try out of its new multiple rocket launchers, South Korea’s military said.
The test-firing came as the clock ticks down on the year-end deadline that Pyongyang had given the United States to show flexibility in their stalled denuclearisation talks.
It also coincided with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, and took place one day before the second anniversary of the North’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the North fired the two projectiles into the sea from launchers in the eastern coastal town of Yonpo at around 5 p.m. (0800 GMT).
The rockets travelled up to 380 km (236 miles) and reached an altitude of 97 km (60 miles), the JCS said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch was a threat not only to Japan but the region and beyond, though his defence ministry said the projectiles did not enter Japanese airspace or its Exclusive Economic Zone.
“We will remain in close contact with the United States, South Korea and the international community to monitor the situation,” Abe told reporters.
The launch is the first since Oct. 31, when the North tested what it called super-large multiple rocket launchers, which had also been used in tests conducted in August and September that were overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
South Korea’s military expressed “strong regret” and urged the North to stop stoking military tension.
“Such acts by North Korea are unhelpful for efforts to ease tension on the Korean peninsula,” Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the JCS, told a news briefing.
Kim has set an end-year deadline for the talks with Washington, but negotiations have been at an impasse after a day-long working level meeting on Oct. 5 ended without progress.
North Korea has been demanding the lifting of sanctions that are hobbling its economy, and Kim set the deadline for Washington to show more flexibility in April, raising concerns he could resume nuclear and long-range missile testing suspended since 2017.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun said last week the year-end deadline was an artificial one, but could mean a return to “provocative” steps that preceded the past two years of diplomacy.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election next year, has repeatedly pointed to Kim’s suspension of long-range missile and nuclear bomb tests as a major achievement of his engagement with North Korea.
Analysts believe Pyongyang is trying to send a Thanksgiving reminder to the United States by demonstrating progress in weapons development on the anniversary of the 2017 ICBM test.
“Today’s launch fit a North Korean pattern of escalating pressure on Washington and Seoul ahead of Kim Jong-un’s year-end deadline,” said Leif-Eric Easley, who teaches international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
North Korean officials have warned the United States to abandon its hostile policy towards the North or Pyongyang would walk away from the talks.
The North has also demanded the abandonment of joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which it calls preparations for an invasion.
The test comes a week after South Korea pulled back from a decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, an important element of security cooperation between the key U.S. allies in the region.
A senior Trump administration official said on Thursday that it was aware of reports of a North Korean missile launch.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in the region,” the official said.
A U.S. State Department official said, “We call on North Korea to avoid provocations, abide by obligations under UN Security Council Resolutions, and return to sustained and substantive negotiations to do its part to achieve complete denuclearisation.”
The Pentagon referred Reuters to the U.S. Forces Korea for comment.
(Reporting by Jack Kim and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul and Naomi Tajitsu and William Mallard in Tokyo; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Daniel Wallis)