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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea tests missiles a month ahead of deadline for US talks

Analysts say Kim wants to show weapons progress with negotiations in limbo

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearization negotiations with Washington.   © Reuters

SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) -- Breaking a month-long lull in missile tests, North Korea fired two short range missiles into the sea off its east coast on Thursday in what appeared to be the latest try out of its new multiple rocket launchers, South Korea's military said.

The test-firing came as the clock ticks down on the year-end deadline that Pyongyang had given the United States to restart stalled denuclearisation talks.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the North fired the two missiles into the sea from launchers in the eastern coastal town of Yonpo at around 5 p.m. (0800 GMT).

The rockets travelled up to 380 kilometres (236 miles) and reached an altitude of 97 km (60 miles), the JCS said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the launch was a threat to not only Japan but the region and beyond, though his defence ministry said the projectile did not enter Japanese airspace or its Exclusive Economic Zone.

"We will remain in close contact with the United States, South Korea and the international community to monitor the situation," Abe told reporters.

The launch is the first since Oct. 31, when the North tested what it called super-large multiple rocket launchers, which had also been used in tests conducted in August and September that were overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Analysts believe Pyongyang is trying to demonstrate progress in weapons development while negotiations with the United States remained in limbo.

South Korea's military expressed "strong regret," urging the North to stop stoking military tension.

"Such acts by North Korea are unhelpful for efforts to ease tension on the Korean peninsula," Jeon Dong-jin, director of operations at the JCS, told a news briefing.

The test also comes a week after South Korea pulled back from a decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, a key element of security cooperation between the key U.S. allies in the region.

Kim has set an end-of-the-year deadline for denuclearisation talks with Washington, but negotiations have been at an impasse after a day-long working level meeting on Oct. 5 ended without progress.

North Korean officials have warned the United States to abandon its hostile policy toward the North or Pyongyang would walk away from the talks.

The North has demanded the lifting of sanctions against it and the abandonment of joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which it calls preparations for an invasion.

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