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(LEAD) (News Focus) N. Korea's new missile launches complicate U.S. efforts to resume talks

All Headlines 03:01 July 26, 2019

(ATTN: UPDATES with U.S. senators' tweets in paras 13-16; ADDS photo)
By Lee Haye-ah

WASHINGTON, July 25 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's ballistic missile launches on Thursday mark a new turn in the on- again, off-again negotiations to dismantle the regime's nuclear weapons program, with experts agreeing talks are unlikely to happen in the near future.

The launch of what South Korea described as two short-range ballistic missiles of a "new kind" is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and a direct challenge to U.S. President Donald Trump's repeated claims that the regime has stopped testing missiles and nuclear weapons under his administration.

Trump could argue that the North did not break its promise to stop long-range missile launches that threaten the continental U.S., but the latest provocation is likely to pour cold water on efforts to restart denuclearization talks, which was agreed to during Trump's impromptu meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the inter-Korean border on June 30.

"They want to demonstrate their anger about the upcoming U.S.-South Korea military exercises," Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, told Yonhap News Agency, referring to the allies' regular drills scheduled for next month.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) stands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un before they hold talks at the Freedom House on the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two Koreas, on June 30, 2019. (Yonhap)

North Korea warned last week that the resumption of talks would be affected by whether Seoul and Washington go ahead with the exercises, which it has long denounced as a rehearsal for invasion.

Manning said the tests may also have had some military value if they involved solid fuel missiles, which are more difficult than liquid fuel rockets to target pre-launch.

Trump has yet to comment on the latest launches. After the previous North Korean missile launches in May, he downplayed them as merely short-range and reaffirmed his confidence that Kim will uphold his commitment to denuclearize.

A senior U.S. government official told Yonhap that the U.S. is aware of reports of a short-range projectile launch, but declined to comment further.

Frank Aum, a senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said he expects the U.S. to react the same way it did to the May tests by ignoring the latest firings.

"I don't think it will derail negotiations in the long-term but it will likely take longer for the working-level negotiations to begin," he said.

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, also held out a longer term timeline for any resumption of talks.

"For the time being, I don't see any viable path to any sort of talks for the foreseeable future," he said. "In fact, I see North Korea perhaps testing more missiles before joint drills begin and even more missiles after they end. Even under the best scenario, if North Korea is interested, I don't see any real substantive diplomacy with the North until the fall, at the earliest."

A short-range missile is launched from Kusong, North Pyongan Province in the northwestern part of North Korea, on May 9, 2019, in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

The launches drew fresh condemnation from both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, tweeted Wednesday: "In response to this provocation, the administration should move to impose additional sanctions on North Korea and all of its enablers."

Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), ranking member of the same subcommittee, said Wednesday that if the reports of the launches are true, they would amount to a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"And Trump, who confirmed this week that no working-level talks are ongoing, has been engaging in summitry with nothing to show for it," the senator tweeted. "North Korea is trying to pressure us into a bad deal."

Manning, from the Atlantic Council, questioned the North's seriousness about denuclearization, saying the exercises are a "convenient excuse."

"Recently, the U.S. has hinted at new flexibility on easing sanctions if progress on denuclearization occurs," he said. "The point of diplomacy is to test offers and ideas, explore counter-offers and find a balance of interests. So it is reasonable to ask, if Kim won't even do that, is he serious about denuclearization?"


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