By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, July 31 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's second missile tests in less than a week are casting doubts over the early resumption of working-level talks between the North and the United States to dismantle the regime's nuclear weapons program.
On June 30, U.S. President Donald Trump said after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the inter-Korean border that they had agreed to restart the negotiations in several weeks.
But the month that followed saw no talks and only the North's first test-firing of missiles since May. Last Thursday, it launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea, and on Wednesday, it launched two more.
Frank Aum, a senior expert on North Korea at the U.S. Institute of Peace, interpreted the series of tests as a signal of North Korea's frustration with joint military exercises between South Korea and the U.S., planned for next month, as well as what it perceives as Trump's violation of his "promise" to cancel them.
"I think the missile tests are an indication that working-level talks will not proceed until the exercises are over later in August," Aum said, adding that he believes the drills will go ahead as planned.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, agreed with the timeline, saying the North is likely to test even more missiles in the run-up to as well as after the exercises.
"The only question now is does Trump get frustrated at some point and begin to change his tune on North Korea," he said. "Knowing the 2020 election is coming, he may feel pressed to begin applying more pressure on Kim to show he won't allow North Korea to push him around."
Meanwhile, Kazianis said, Kim continues to apply pressure on Washington and Seoul through the missile tests so that when working-level talks resume, he can barter from a position a strength, or at least appear that way for his domestic audience.
Trump has touted the suspension of North Korea's nuclear and long-range missile tests as one of his major foreign policy achievements since he began diplomatic engagement with the regime in the spring of 2018.
He downplayed last week's missiles as "smaller ones" and continued to boast of his "very good" relationship with the North Korean leader.
"We'll see what happens," Trump said Tuesday, hours before the North test-fired again.
Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, expressed concern that Kim may be calling all the shots.
"Trump is too invested in the Trump-Kim relationship and is unwilling to admit the failures of his policies," he said.
Manning also noted that the series of missile tests underscores North Korea's commitment to developing its weapons of mass destruction programs and improving its capabilities.
South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said this week's missiles are estimated to have flown about 250 kilometers at an approximate altitude of 30 km.
Pending further analysis, it said the projectiles appeared to be similar to those of last week, which were identified as KN-23, or the North's version of Russia's Iskander ballistic missile.
U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from launching ballistic missiles of any kind.
"(Kim) may be thinking that he can get away with conducting his tests as offsets to the U.S.-South Korea military exercises," Manning said, noting that he still expects the working-level talks to take place "at some point."
"By going ahead with the talks -— which don't commit Pyongyang to anything -- it will allow Trump to say Kim kept his word," he added.
The official U.S. response following Wednesday's launches was cautious.
"We are aware of reports of a missile launch from North Korea, and we will continue to monitor the situation," a State Department spokesperson said on condition of anonymity.
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