(ATTN: RECASTS 14th para; ADDS more info in 19th para)
By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, July 25 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's latest firing of missiles appears aimed at sending a message to the United States through a calibrated move to protest a planned U.S.-South Korea military exercise and at also raising its negotiating power ahead of possible nuclear talks with Washington, experts said Thursday.
Earlier in the day, North Korea fired two short-range missiles from near the east coast town of Wonsan into the East Sea. The launches followed Pyongyang's test-firing in early May of multiple projectiles, including what it claimed to be new tactical guided weapons and two short-range missiles, over a period of less than a week.
The North conducted the missile tests amid growing uncertainties over the prospect of working-level talks that the leaders of North Korea and the U.S. agreed to resume around mid-July when they met at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom on June 30.
The U.S. has been making efforts to kick-start the stalled nuclear talks but Pyongyang is reportedly not responding to its offer for dialogue. The North has ramped up its demand for Washington to cancel its joint military drills with the South, calling them a rehearsal for invasion and warning they could hamper the efforts to resume talks.
Experts see Thursday's missile launches as a classic negotiation tactic when dealing with Washington -- a way to pressure the U.S. administration to come up with proposals closer to its demands.
Pyongyang has occasionally urged Seoul and Washington to halt their joint military exercises as a precondition for talks or a means to maximize the profit from any negotiations.
"It's one of (Pyongyang's) low-level protests calling on Washington to lower the hurdles, which is to ease the terms of the nuclear negotiations if they want to have the working-level talks," Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Dongguk University, said.
Some see the North's missile launches as an indication of its displeasure with Washington sticking to the military drill scheduled for next month.
Harry J. Kazianis, a senior director for Korea studies at Washington-based Center for the National Interest, noted the missile firing was a predictable move to object to the upcoming Korea-U.S. joint military drill slated for August.
"North Korea is clearly upset that the U.S. and South Korea are conducting joint military exercises. ... (The North) won't accept food aid from Seoul and is now once again testing weapons systems," he said in an email comment. "We should not be shocked by this move, in fact, we should have seen it coming."
On Wednesday, Seoul's unification ministry confirmed that North Korea is refusing to accept 50,000 tons of rice provision from the South, citing the planned drill with Washington.
The North's state media reported on Tuesday that its leader, Kim Jong-un, recently carried out a field inspection of a newly built submarine, during which he apparently called for the deployment of naval forces to boost his country's military capabilities.
The nuclear talks between North Korea and the U.S. remain deadlocked after the Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim broke down without a deal. They failed to reach common ground on the scope of the North's denuclearization and Washington's sanctions relief.
Pyongyang favors an incremental, step-by-step approach to denuclearization, whereby it seeks sanctions relief or other incentives in return for dismantling its mainstay Yongbyon nuclear complex, to start with.
But Washington has made it clear it wants Pyongyang to first agree to a comprehensive roadmap for denuclearization, possibly including full disclosure of its nuclear programs and facilities, before it brings up any sanctions relief.
The prospects of dialogue between the North and the U.S. have been further clouded by local media reports earlier that North Korea will likely not send its foreign minister to a regional forum in Thailand early next month.
The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has been a much-anticipated venue for possible high-level talks between North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It is unusual for the North's top diplomat to skip the ARF, as the reclusive communist state has used it as a major platform to voice its opinions on its nuclear weapons program and other security issues.
Since 2000, the North has sent a representative to the ARF. With the exceptions of 2001, 2003 and 2009, its foreign minister has represented the country at the annual gathering.
Observers have said that North Korea could carry out maneuvers similar its recent missile launches until the end of the U.S.-South Korea drills due to start early next month.
"Right after disclosing a newly built submarine in an apparent reaction to the joint military drills planned by the South and the U.S., the North fired two short-range missiles as part of efforts to raise the morale of its people and military ahead of July 27," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute said, referring to the date when the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War was signed.
"It's notable that the (North's) Rodong Sinmun newspaper ran articles about the Korean War on many of its pages today. Given all that, along with the missile firings ... we can expect that there will be at least a couple more low-intensity armed protests by the North in the coming days," he added.
Experts, however, said that all of this might not necessarily mean that Pyongyang will turn away from dialogue.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, noted that even though Kim Jong-un favors direct talks with Trump, it will be hard for him to reject the working-level talks because he publicly agreed to take part in them at the Panmunjom meeting.
"Nevertheless, he is dragging his feet, with the strategic objective of reinforcing his position," he said.
Experts shared the view that the working-level talks may be delayed further, although the possibility stands that the two sides will make contact through unofficial channels.
"Washington likely won't react at this stage," Professor Kim said. "Given that Trump's gearing up for re-election, the U.S. will most likely go for the status quo, manage the situation through unofficial contact so that it won't get any worse for now."
Washington has not announced its official stance on the latest missile launches by Pyongyang. U.S. President Donald Trump recently said he'd had "very positive" correspondence with North Korea and that the two sides will meet for nuclear talks when the communist regime is ready.
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