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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea tests the limits with repeated missile salvos

Development of new weapon proceeds as Seoul and Washington remain quiet

SEOUL -- North Korea fired its latest projectiles Friday as it continues to test the tolerance of the U.S. and South Korea while the two allies conduct military exercises despite strong protests from Pyongyang.

The North fired two projectiles 230 km into the Sea of Japan, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, which believes the objects are short-range ballistic missiles. The launch marked Pyongyang's sixth volley in three weeks.

All five previous launches were staged on mobile platforms, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was present every time. State media described the first launch on July 25 as a "show of force" against U.S.-South Korea military exercises.

For the other four rounds, North Korean media termed each as a "test firing" of new weapons.

The Aug. 10 firings drew the most attention from military analysts. The weapon is similar to an American surface-to-surface missile, dubbed the Army Tactical Missile System. The warheads on those missiles are loaded with a cluster of submunitions capable of destroying enemy installations.

Experts believe North Korea's version of the weapon is derived from a Russian short-range ballistic missile -- the Iskander.

Pyongyang said that the projectiles launched on July 31 and Aug. 2 used a multiple rocket launcher system. It is believed that the launchers are equipped with an advanced guidance system, and the projectiles traveled 250 km.

The North likely had South Korea's deployment of the F-35 stealth fighter in mind when testing the system, as well as South Korean and U.S. military bases across the 38th parallel.

The ballistic missile launched on Aug. 6 reportedly flew over the capital Pyongyang and hit its target on an island off the eastern coast. If the weapon is capable of traveling farther, it would put U.S. military bases in Japan within range, presenting an additional challenge for Japan's missile defense shield.

The firings were likely a calculated response to the U.S.-South Korean military exercises. In an Aug. 10 letter sent to U.S. President Donald Trump, Kim said he would cease launching short-range missiles once the drills are over.

North Korea appears to be using a window of opportunity to conduct weapons test during a lull in denuclearization talks with the U.S. because it will not be able to do so once discussions reopen, said Andrew Kim, the former CIA official in charge of the spy agency's Korea Mission Center.

Other observers have said Washington and Seoul have been encouraging Pyongyang's behavior. The UN Security Council bans North Korea from conducting ballistic missile tests, but Trump has said that he sees "no problem" with short-range testing.

North Korean officials have pounced those words last weekend. "Even the U.S. president made a remark which in effect recognizes the self-defensive rights of a sovereign state, saying that it is a small missile test which a lot of countries do," Kwon Jong Gun, the American affairs chief at North Korea's foreign ministry, said in a statement Sunday.

Friday's firing comes a day after South Korean President Moon Jae-in continued to pursue his dialogue with Pyongyang as he furthers his agenda to reunite the peninsula by 2045. Moon, whose administration has been mostly silent about the firings, said in a speech Thursday that he wanted to advance economic cooperation with the North.

Pyongyang rebuffed the gesture. "The joint military exercises are now at their full swing," a spokesman for North Korea's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country said Friday. Moon's "open talk about 'dialogue'... raises a question as to whether he has proper thinking faculty."

The statement closes with "we have nothing more to say with the South Korean authorities nor have any idea to sit with them again."

South Korea's joint military drill with the U.S. enters the final phase Saturday when it simulates a counteroffensive against the North. The hermit state is expected to ratchet up the provocations by the time the exercises end next Tuesday.

The South Korean government is looking out for the launch of a new North Korean submarine that Kim was seen inspecting in late July. The North tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles in 2016, but some of the missiles exploded or fell apart in midflight.

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