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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea ballistic missiles deliver blow to Trump and Moon

Kim Jong Un has little intention of abandoning nuclear arms, analysts say

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un supervises missile launches in this photo supplied by the Korean Central News Agency.   © Reuters

SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- North Korea's missile tests have finally managed to elicit an angry response from South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Moon, who has pushed for warmer ties with the North since coming to power, has long tried to remain upbeat about prospects for cooperation with Pyongyang. But last week's rocket launches and the pair of short-range missiles fired on Thursday appear to have dampened his optimism.

"I want to warn North Korea that if such actions are repeated, it will make talks and negotiations difficult," Moon said in a TV interview on Thursday.

The tests also have persuaded South Korea to take a step back from its unconditional offer of food aid to the North, which could be on the brink of another famine.

The ballistic missiles fired Thursday traveled more than 300 km east before falling into the sea, the U.S. State Department said. Ballistic missiles employ rocket engines, unlike cruise missiles, and are designed to carry heavy nuclear, biological and chemical payloads over long distances.

Claimed to be a new "tactical guided weapon" by North Korea, the rockets are believed to be a copy of Russia's Iskander missile, whose low flight trajectory makes it difficult to intercept. This could pose additional challenges to the South Korean military as well as U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula.

Analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is being deliberately provocative in the face of international sanctions that remain in place 18 months after his regime's previous missile test.

The North began ramping up its missile and nuclear testing about three years ago. In 2017 alone it fired missiles on 17 occasions and detonated a hydrogen bomb at an underground site.

Moon took office in May of that year.

Kim, analysts say, is also sending a message to Washington: Pyongyang has no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons or otherwise acquiescing to American demands, and that U.S. President Donald Trump needs to shift his negotiating stance.

Trump at the end of February walked out of his second summit with Kim, saying Kim was not ready to negotiate. In that Hanoi meeting, the U.S. demanded that North Korea give up all of its nuclear weapons and provide a list of its nuclear-related sites.

Pyongyang agreed to let its Yongbyon nuclear center be inspected. The facility, about 100 km north of Pyongyang, has provided the fissile material for the six nuclear detonations North Korea has conducted since 2006.

"Kim sent a clear message to Trump with the missile launches," said Cheon Seong-whun, visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "'I have no intention of changing. So you should change.' He may raise tensions step by step."

Cheon said North Korea's recent provocations have been carefully crafted. Kim oversaw a tactical weapons test last month, followed by test firings last week and actual launches on Thursday. "These should be seen as one bundle," Cheon said.

Scott Seaman, director at Eurasia Group in Washington, said North Korea will conduct repeated minor missile tests and that they will harm the so-called denuclearization talks with the U.S.

"We need to consider the possibility that, cumulatively, a large number of relatively minor tests might have the same basic deleterious effect on the engagement process as a single major test of a long-range missile capable of striking the U.S.," Seaman said.

The recent missile tests are a clear obstacle to restarting denuclearization talks, said Jenny Town, a fellow at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

The tests have at least grabbed Trump's attention, although the U.S. president said he has no plans to resume negotiating with North Korea.

"We're looking at it very seriously now," Trump said Thursday when White House reporters asked him about the North Korea situation. "Nobody's happy about it ... I know they want to negotiate; they're talking about negotiating ... but I don't think they're ready to negotiate."

In a likely bid to curb further provocations by Pyongyang, the Justice Department said Thursday that the U.S. seized a North Korean vessel for the first time on accusations of transporting North Korean coal in violation of United Nations sanctions. The U.S. also tested an intercontinental ballistic missile at a California base.

Washington appears not to be broaching the North's missile launch at the U.N. Security Council for now, leaving the door open for future dialogue. But turning a blind eye to rockets that would not reach the continental U.S. could cause rifts with Japan and South Korea, which are within range of the North's short-range missiles.

Thursday's launch also delivers a blow to Trump, who has claimed the pause in North Korea's tests as his success. Further provocations could push the U.S. to impose additional sanctions on the North.

North Korea has not responded to American contact since the February summit ended without a deal, according to a diplomatic source. Efforts to bring home the remains of American troops from the Korean War also have stalled, with no signs of further progress.

Meanwhile, the launches have undermined Seoul's efforts to send food to North Korea.

The United Nations said last week that four in 10 North Koreans are chronically short of calories and that daily rations have been cut to 300 grams of food per person after the country's worst harvest in a decade. North Korea is no stranger to starvation. In the mid-1990s, an estimated 3 million people died from famine.

South Korea's Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul told reporters on Friday that he will decide on the matter after listening to a wide range of opinions -- a softening of previous offers of unconditional aid.

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