June 1, 2017 10:00 am JST

International discord is music to North Korea's ears

West's rift with Russia, China stymies action on Pyongyang's weapons programs

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

North Korean state broadcaster KRT shows an undated still image on May 30 of what appears to be a Scud-type ballistic missile. The country test-fired a missile, believed to be a scud, the previous day. © AP

SEOUL Emboldened by rifts in the international community, North Korea has made it clear that it intends to push ahead with its nuclear and missile programs, firing its third missile in as many weeks on May 29.

The launch of the suspected Scud missile, which splash-landed within Japan's exclusive economic zone, came ahead of a planned joint military exercise by the U.S. and South Korea. Expected to be one of the largest such drills ever, it will be conducted just off the Korean Peninsula and will include the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan and USS Carl Vinson aircraft carriers.

Pyongyang is seemingly undeterred by this looming show of force. It described the exercise as a "reckless action" that threatens to ignite already heightened tensions on the peninsula, according to a statement issued the same day by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

South Korean authorities believe the missile was a Scud-C type with a range of 500km.

Pyongyang is both testing and showing off its ability to accurately hit targets, said Moon Sung-mook, a senior researcher at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul and a former military official. Moon added that North Korea is sending a message to Japan and the international community that it will not give in to sanctions or other pressure.

The latest launch is also an act of defiance against the Group of Seven leaders, who issued a statement on May 26 in Italy strongly condemning North Korea.

The hard line taken by Japan and the U.S. remains unchanged. After a 25-minute phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on May 29, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters that both sides "have agreed to cooperate to step up pressure on North Korea based on results reached at the G-7 summit and bilateral talks between Japanese and U.S. leaders."

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force plans to conduct drills with the USS Ronald Reagan, just as it did with the USS Carl Vinson in April, prior to their military exercise with South Korea.

North Korea has already launched 12 missiles this year, a pace that exceeds the 20-odd rockets fired in 2016. But even though Japan, the U.S., other G-7 allies have made North Korea a "top priority in the international agenda," a breakthrough hinges on Beijing and Moscow backing stronger sanctions.

U.S. President Donald Trump once again took that campaign to Twitter: "North Korea has shown great disrespect for their neighbor, China, by shooting off yet another ballistic missile," he wrote on May 29. "But China is trying hard!"

Nikkei staff writer Yosuke Onchi in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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