A woman at a railway station in Seoul walks past a television showing a North Korean missile launch on July 31, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

North Korea test-fired two projectiles, believed to be short-range ballistic missiles, into the Sea of Japan on Wednesday morning – its second missile test in less than a week.

The tests come at a time when a complex range of factors – questions hanging over the future of nuclear negotiations, South Korea-US summer military drills in August and North Korea’s sanctions-struck economy facing apparently serious pressure – are in play on the Korean peninsula.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the first projectile was launched at 5:06am, and the second at 5:27am. They flew about 250 kilometers at a height of 30 kilometers.

Both were fired from a base close to the east coast near the town of Wonsan, which is being developed into a tourism resort in one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s flagship economic projects.

A formal US reaction is expected imminently.

The North last fired two projectiles – which have since been tentatively identified as North Korean variants of Russia’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile – last Thursday.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from test-firing ballistic missiles. However, Donald Trump’s administration appears sensitive only to long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles which could hit US soil.

After last week’s firing, Trump brushed off the test, telling Fox News: “They haven’t done nuclear testing, they really haven’t tested missiles other than, you know, smaller ones, which is something that lots [of countries] test.”

Pyongyang’s latest test launch comes as Seoul and Washington prepare for joint summer military exercises in August.

Pyongyang is highly sensitive to such exercises, which it considers invasion preparation, and at the first North Korea-US summit in Singapore last year, President Trump gave North Korea a verbal assurance that he would indefinitely halt major spring exercises, which are customarily held annually.

Even though this summer’s drills are expected to be smaller in scale and lower-profile than previous drills, the exercises are back on.

Pyongyang’s message?

While the North Korean military – which maintains a massive artillery arm, with a broad range of missile types and units – certainly has tactical needs to test its technologies, the regime also has political reasons to raise tensions in an ever-jittery region.

North Korean state media said that last week’s firings were a “solemn warning” to the “war-mongers” in South Korea, which were in a “high fever in their moves to introduce the ultramodern offensive weapons.”

Not only is South Korea planning upcoming drills with the US, it is also buying a fleet of 40 highly advanced US F35 stealth fighters, whose capabilities are believed to be far in excess of any North Korean aircraft.

Pyongyang’s message with its recent missile tests could be dual purpose, one expert suggested to Asia Times – it has security issues with the United States and economic demands from South Korea.

“North Korea wants talks with the Americans but are sensitive about the details – timetables, the list of nuclear sites and so on – so they want top-down talks, but the Americans want technical talks, bottom-up talks,” said Choi Jin-wook, a North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Hankook University of Foreign Studies.

After last month’s surprise Kim-Trump meeting at the DMZ, working-level talks have been back on the table. However, they have not yet transpired, nor is there any set schedule. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made only vague statements about their timing. This suggests Pyongyang is uncomfortable with the format.

There is also an economic imperative.

“Right now, they are not so desperate for a security guarantee but they want economic aid – which would come from South Korea,” Choi said. “North Korea desperately wants sanctions lifted, but South Korean cannot move.”

Last week, North Korea turned down food aid from Seoul. What it may be seeking is broader macro-economic relief at a time when its economy – at least according to estimates from Seoul as Pyongyang itself does not publicly distribute economic data – shrank 4.1% last year.

If the South Korean data is even partly correct, it is very bad news for Kim, who has publicly pledged to improve North Korea’s economy and its citizens’ standard of living.

But Seoul is the junior partner in its alliance with Washington and President Trump has repeatedly made clear he will offer no sanctions relief until and unless North Korea denuclearizes.

With Seoul now isolated in the region – not only have China and Russia recently probed South Korea airspace, Japan has taken unprecedented economic measures against South Korea in an apparent escalation of a long-running diplomatic/history war between the two states – the Moon Jae-in government has no other friends or allies in sight. This makes it impossible for Seoul to break ranks with Washington.

And Washington faces regional coordination problems. While Russia, China and possibly even North Korea coordinate in Northeast Asia, Seoul and Tokyo are barely on speaking terms. In terms of security cooperation, they are bound only by a flimsy intelligence sharing agreement that some in Seoul are suggesting should be scrapped amid Seoul-Tokyo diplomatic and trade tensions.

Amid this dicey situation, Choi warned of “more provocations” to come.

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