In Depth

North Korea launches missiles hours after agreeing US talks

No sooner were nuclear talks announced, reports emerged that Pyongyang had fired projectiles towards Japan

North Korea and the US announced they would hold new talks to limit Pyongyang’s snowballing nuclear programme this weekend, resuming efforts that collapsed after Donald Trump cut short his Hanoi summit with Kim Jong Un in February this year.

Only hours after the announcement, however, North Korea launched at least one projectile towards Japan, in a move that is likely calibrated to provide leverage during the talks - but could just as possibly scupper them altogether.

South Korean military officials “did not immediately confirm what the weapons were, how many were fired or how far they flew”, reports CNBC. “But Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the North fired two ballistic missiles from the country’s east coast, and one of them appeared to have landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone off its northwestern coast.”

Some reports indicate that the projectiles, which landed in the sea and caused no damage, could have been fired from a submarine.

The resumption of US-North Korea talks was announced yesterday, initially by North Korea’s state news agency KCNA, which carried a statement from vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui.

“It is my expectation that the working-level negotiations would accelerate the positive development of the DPRK [North Korea]-US relations,” said Choe, adding that preliminary contact would take place between the two administrations on Friday, followed by working-level talks on Saturday.

“I can confirm that US and DPRK officials plan to meet within the next week,” Morgan Ortagus, a spokesperson for the State Department, told reporters. “I do not have further details to share on the meeting.”

“Although North Korea has lately expressed willingness for working-level talks, messages carried by its state media attached a caveat that Washington should show more flexibility,” reports Reuters. “North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Myong Gil said in a statement last month that the United States should present the 'right calculation method at the upcoming talks'.”

In response to the news of the missile tests, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, said: “We will continue to cooperate with the US and the international community and do the utmost to maintain and protect the safety of the people as we stay on alert.”

The conditions that have allowed the talks to continue have been helped considerably - at least as far as Pyongyang is concerned - by the departure of former US national security adviser John Bolton last month.

Bolton’s hawkish attitude to negotiations put him at odds with Trump, who prefers a personality-driven approach - or “bromance diplomacy”, as some critics have labelled it.

Kim’s regime “has called Mr. Bolton a ‘war maniac’ and ‘human scum’ at various times,” reports The New York Times, and “was particularly incensed when he championed the so-called Libyan model of forcing North Korea to quickly give up and ship out its nuclear arsenal before granting the country any rewards”.

After Bolton was ousted from his post, Kim Myong-gil, North Korea’s new envoy to nuclear talks with the United States, said he was pleased “a nasty troublemaker” had been removed from the equation, describing the move as a “wise political decision,” according to Reuters.

“Since the Hanoi talks collapsed, North Korea has threatened to abandon diplomacy completely unless Washington returns to the negotiating table with a more flexible offer by the end of the year,” writes Choe Sang-Hun in The New York Times. It appears that, following Bolton’s departure, this has now happened.

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“We hope that both sides will use these working-level talks to make quick and concrete progress for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and a permanent peace there,” said Ko Min-jung, a spokeswoman for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, whose policy is to endorse the talks. 

Kim Jae-chun, a professor at Sogang University and a former South Korean government adviser, said in reality, each side’s positions are mutually incompatible. “The US wants to define denuclearisation and specify the scope of it even if it gets implemented step by step, but North Korea still finds it burdensome to draw a big picture. The two sides have too big differences of opinion over denuclearisation to narrow the gap.”

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