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Update: North Korean media coverage later revealed this test was of a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), not of a ballistic missile.
North Korea on Wednesday morning launched two ballistic missiles from Hodo in South Hamgyong Province, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, in what represents Pyongyang’s second such test in less than a week.
“Our military today (July 31) detected two short-range ballistic missiles being launched toward the northeastern coast in the vicinity of Wonsan-Kalma area at 05:06 and 05:27 local time,” the JCS reported.
“The altitude of the short-range ballistic missiles launched this time was around 30km, and the flying distance is presumed to be around 250km,” the statement continued. “The ROK and U.S. intelligence authorities are conducting a detailed analysis of precise data.”
“North Korea’s launches of missiles are not conducive to efforts aimed at easing military tensions on the Korean peninsula. We urge them to stop such acts.”
The U.S. State Department told NK News it was “aware” of the most recent launch, though did not comment on whether the test would affect Washington’s stance on negotiations with the DPRK.
“We will continue to monitor the situation,” a State Department official told NK News.
The launch comes less than a week after an earlier short-range ballistic missile test last Thursday — fired from the same location — and is North Korea’s fourth such exercise this year.
The DPRK is believed to have on Wednesday launched the same missile as last week’s test, the JCS said.
That missile — known as the KN-23 — was also tested twice in May.
“The KN-23 is quasi-ballistic missile, designed to fly on depressed trajectories, aided along the flight path with aerodynamic maneuvers,” NK Pro contributor Ankit Panda wrote last week.
“The 50 kilometer flight ceiling keeps this missiles entirely within the stratosphere, where aerodynamic forces act on the missile’s airframe.”
According to the NK Pro missile tracker, Hodo was also the launch site for two missile launches by the DPRK in May.
North Korea last week described the missile as a new kind of “tactical guided weapon,” saying its Thursday test had been carried out in order to send a “warning” to Seoul over its recent deployment of F-35A stealth jets to the peninsula and an upcoming joint military drill with the U.S.
That exercise, known as “Dong Maeng,” is expected to kick-off early next month.
“Today’s launches did not come as a surprise,” Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said. “In May, North Korea launched missiles on two occasions with a five-day lag.”
“Also, North Korea last week explicitly referred to the testing, development, and deployment of weapons, which seemed to imply that Pyongyang would continue to engage in military activities,” she continued.
“If North Korea this morning launched short-range missiles or something less serious, it would track with the behavior the country has shown in recent months of escalating pressure while leaving the door open for dialogue with the U.S.”
The DPRK’s previous test also notably overlapped with a visit to the Korean peninsula by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who arrived in Seoul last week for talks with senior South Korean government officials.
North Korea’s recent tests also come amid broader uncertainty over when the U.S. and North Korea will be able to go ahead with planned working-level talks over the country’s denuclearization, originally set to take place in mid-July.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said he hoped those meetings with North Korean counterparts would resume “very soon.”
The U.S. State Department, however, last week urged North Korea against conducting additional tests and further “provocations.”
“We want to have diplomatic engagement with the North Koreans,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told reporters during a regular press briefing.
“This administration is committed to diplomatic engagement with the North Koreans and we continue to press and hope for these working-level negotiations to move forward.”
Pompeo is set to arrive in Bangkok on Thursday for an ASEAN regional forum, with U.S. point man on North Korea Stephen Biegun as part of his entourage.
Washington is yet to confirm any meetings with DPRK counterparts, however, with foreign minister Ri Yong Ho widely expected to skip the forum.
Despite the deadlock, some diplomatic contact is being made, with a senior U.S. official telling reporters on Tuesday that the two sides had recently met at the inter-Korean border and that the North Korean had expressed a desire to hold working-level talks soon.
“I think the missile tests are warnings to South Korea and the U.S. that North Korea is unhappy with the ongoing joint military exercises,” David Kim, an analyst with the Stimson Center’s WMD, Nonproliferation, and Security program, told NK News.
“As long as the exercise continues, we can expect these kinds of provocations,” he added. “Given that U.S. officials met with North Korean officials at the border recently, as long as North Korea doesn’t test an ICBM, these “projectiles” won’t necessarily hamper the diplomatic process.”
Additional reporting by Dagyum Ji
Featured image: KCNA