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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed a live-fire drill Saturday in the east coast town of Wonsan.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed a live-fire drill Saturday in the east coast town of Wonsan. (Courtesy of KCNA)

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s live-fire drills this weekend, which apparently included the first ballistic missile test in more than a year, raised tensions as the United States struggles to get nuclear talks back on track.

The North confirmed Sunday that the weapons fired off the east coast of the divided peninsula the day before were “modern large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons.”

State-run media also released photos of what experts said was a new truck-mounted, short-range ballistic missile targeting an island. That would be the first missile test since November 2017.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed the drills and expressed “great satisfaction,” noting they had been conducted without advance notice, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

“He stressed the need for all the service members to keep high alert posture and … to increase the combat ability so as to defend the political sovereignty and economic self-sustenance of the country,” KCNA said.

The salvos came days before Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, was to travel to Tokyo and Seoul to discuss denuclearization efforts.

While all ballistic missile activities in North Korea are banned by the U.N. Security Council, Saturday’s drills did not violate Kim’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

But they served as a reminder that the communist state continues to develop military capabilities while U.S.-led diplomacy to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons falters.

“It’s definitely a solid fuel ballistic missile. But it’s not a long range missile,” wrote Vipin Narang, a nuclear proliferation expert and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Kim Jong Un may be starting his ‘push the line’ strategy, gradually seeing how much Trump will turn a blind eye to. Not good,” he added.

South Korea’s military said the projectiles detected on Saturday had been 240 mm and 300 mm multiple rocket launchers and a new type of tactical guided weapons.

It didn’t confirm a ballistic missile was involved but said the weapons flew for about 20 minutes and as far as 125 miles, which would mean they had the range to reach Seoul and American forces based there.

President Donald Trump - who has cited the moratorium as progress - responded hours after the launch on Saturday with an optimistic tweet, suggesting he did not believe the North had gone too far.

“I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it,” Trump wrote. “He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”

Trump and Kim vowed that talks would continue after their second nuclear summit collapsed without agreement in February in Hanoi, Vietnam.

But North Korea has shown growing frustration over the U.S. refusal to agree to an incremental approach to denuclearization that would include rewards such as sanctions relief for steps already taken.

The North also has heightened criticism of annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, mocking efforts by the allies to keep them low-key by renaming them and reducing their scope.

Seoul and Washington are due to conduct an exercise previously known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian in August.

South Korea’s presidential office accused the North on Saturday of violating a bilateral military agreement that called for the two sides to cease “all hostile acts” against each other.

North Korea conducted a series of nuclear and missile tests in 2016-17, demonstrating rapid progress toward its goal of being able to target the U.S. mainland.

Trump and Kim also traded personal insults and threats of war as the Security Council imposed tough sanctions against the North.

The situation calmed when diplomatic efforts began early last year. In a policy speech last month, however, Kim warned tensions could rise again and set an end-of-year deadline for the United States to offer a mutually acceptable approach to negotiations.

Twitter: @kimgamel


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