August 31, 2017 2:16 am JST

Kim turns down the heat in latest threats to US

North Korean leader signals openness to diplomacy by holding off on Guam plan

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed Tuesday's missile test with senior officials. © NKS/Kyodo

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has directed his military to conduct more missile tests over the Pacific Ocean but reaffirmed his wait-and-see stance on a threatened strike near Guam, leaving the door open for dialogue with the U.S.

Flexing muscle

The North's Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday on the previous day's launch of a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It boasted that the rocket "accurately hit the preset target waters" and that its combat capabilities were "proved perfect."

The test was timed to coincide with the 107th anniversary of Japan's "disgraceful" annexation of Korea, the official mouthpiece said, praising Kim's "bold plan" that "gave vent to the long-pent grudge of the Korean people."

The piece also framed the test as a show of force in response to the annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint military drills being conducted by the U.S. and South Korean militaries. Kim blasted the U.S. for responding with "bellicose war exercises for aggression" to Pyongyang's warning that it would watch Washington's behavior before making a decision on the Guam strike, according to KCNA.

The North Korean leader seems to have paid little heed to a statement unanimously adopted Tuesday by the United Nations Security Council condemning the missile test and calling for an immediate halt to further launches.

Kim called the Hwasong-12 test the "first step" of the North Korean army's operations in the Pacific Ocean and a "curtain-raiser of its resolute countermeasures" against the U.S.-South Korean drills, KCNA wrote. He stressed the need for more launches aimed at the Pacific, suggesting that more missile overflights of Japan are in the cards.

Emphasis on defense

Yet in some respects, Kim's comments hinted at a greater degree of restraint than usual.

The North Korean leader said the missile test is a "meaningful prelude to containing Guam," which he called an "advanced base of invasion." The U.S. military has deployed significant firepower on the island in case of a war on the Korean Peninsula, including B-1 strategic bombers, which have conducted drills in South Korean airspace.

North Korea's threat to create an "enveloping fire" around the American territory with four simultaneous missile launches into nearby waters is likely intended as a practice run for an attack on Andersen Air Force Base there in the event of a conflict.

When the plan was relayed to Kim on Aug. 14, the North Korean leader fired off a typical volley of insults against the U.S., saying he would "watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees spending a hard time of every minute of their miserable lot."

The quotes in Wednesday's piece, in contrast, appeared more carefully calibrated to avoid irritating Washington. North Korea "will continue to watch the U.S. demeanors as already declared and decide its future action according to them," Kim said, suggesting he hopes to avoid the sort of all-out confrontation that a missile launch aimed near Guam could bring.

Pyongyang has also steered clear of actions that could provoke a stronger response from Washington, such as further intercontinental ballistic missile launches or a sixth nuclear test.

North Korea has long pressed the U.S. to stop considering it an enemy. Kim's remark that the country has again learned that it "should show action, not talk, to the U.S." indicates that Pyongyang is still hoping for Washington to give ground.

The U.S.-South Korea exercises are scheduled to conclude Thursday. The diplomatic tug of war with Pyongyang is likely to intensify ahead of North Korea's next big holiday, the anniversary of the state's founding on Sept. 9.

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