N. Korea Test-Fires 3 Missiles as U.S. Sees More Isolation

North Korea fired three short-range missiles yesterday as it showcased its military ambitions in defiance of international sanctions and diplomatic efforts to convince the totalitarian state to return to talks.

Kim Jong Un’s regime launched two guided missiles in the morning and a third in the afternoon, all headed northeast into waters off the country’s east coast, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said by phone yesterday in Seoul. The reason for the action wasn’t clear, he said. South Korea urged the North to stop provocations, Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Hyung Suk said today in a briefing.

South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye hasn’t convened a national security council meeting because the projectiles didn’t appear to be medium-range Musudan missiles, Kim Haing, Park’s spokeswoman, said by phone yesterday. While the South sees no signs of an attack, the military has bolstered its surveillance and maintains a state of high readiness, she said.

The “firing is an attention-seeking act,” Gong Keyu, a researcher at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said in an interview yesterday. “North Korea chose to launch a short-range missile as it knows a longer-range missile would likely antagonize the U.S and that’s something that it doesn’t want to do.”

The firing of the short-range missiles yesterday follows recent rhetoric from the Kim regime threatening nuclear strikes against the U.S. and moving the Musudan to North Korea’s eastern coast. The warnings led the U.S., South Korea and Japan to boost defenses and raised concern in China, the North’s biggest ally.

Potential Threat

“North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which only further isolate” the nation and “undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia,” Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in an e-mail yesterday. “We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama’s call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations.”

The U.S. State Department said it was monitoring the situation, adding “we continue to urge North Korea to exercise restraint and take steps to improve its relations with its neighbors.”

The Musudan has a range of 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) to 3,500 miles -- which is a potential threat to Guam, a U.S. territory, though not to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland, according to testimony before Congress given in April by Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. The North doesn’t have the ability to launch a nuclear-armed missile, President Barack Obama said on April 16.

‘Restrained Move’

“Using short-range missiles is a relatively restrained move by North Korea’s standards,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said by phone yesterday. “Unlike in April when it was sending out hostile messages almost every day, North Korea has been more restrained in the past few weeks.”

North Korea test-fired two short-range missiles in March, Yonhap News reported, citing an unnamed military official. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim declined to comment yesterday on the March test.

The incident may put “upside pressure” on the dollar against the South Korean won early next week, Wee-Khoon Chong, a Hong Kong-based rates strategist at Societe Generale SA, wrote in a note to clients yesterday. The won closed little changed at 1,117.1 against the dollar on May 17.

’Past Experience’

Reaction from the markets may be muted on Monday, according to Heo Pil Seok, chief executive officer at Seoul-based Midas International Asset Management Ltd.

“I don’t expect much impact on the markets,” Heo said in an interview today. “We’ve had the experience in the past that the market had not reacted that much to such short-range missiles. It would have been a different story if it had been a long-range one.”

While the Obama administration has said it would seek to increase pressure on North Korea should it test a missile or nuclear device, previous United Nations measures have failed to deter the Kim regime. The UN Security Council twice this year tightened existing penalties passed in 2006 and 2009 against weapons development, financial transactions and travel.

The North refuses to give up its nuclear weapons program, repeatedly rejecting Obama and South Korean Park’s offers to restart dialogue with the country.

Gaeseong Zone

South Korea urged the North today to accept its repeated calls for working-level talks on bringing completed goods to the South from the Gaeseong industrial zone, according to the Unification Ministry spokesman Kim.

The jointly-run factory park in the North Korean border city of Gaeseong has been shuttered since the North decided on April 8 to withdraw all its workers from the complex.

“Kim Jong Un has to do something to prove that he’s a capable leader who can stand up to the U.S. and South Korea,” the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Lam said. “Yet he may also want to resume talks with South Korea for food aid or improve relationships with China for economic aid.”

The U.S. and South Korea have repeatedly called on China, the North’s biggest trading partner, which has diplomatically shielded the nation from stronger United Nations actions, to make greater efforts to enforce sanctions targeting the North’s nuclear weapons development program. A Chinese state bank closed the account of a North Korean lender, signaling a possible change in stance.

‘Chinese Interests’

Hostile acts by North Korea affect the stability that China is trying to achieve, because neighboring nations will enhance security measures in a way which runs “counter to Chinese interests,” Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said by phone yesterday. “Chinese leaders know well enough that if Kim Jong Un continues to push things, the U.S. and its allies will be forced to respond.”

Isao Iijima, an aide to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left Pyongyang Friday after an unannounced four-day trip during which he met senior North Korean officials, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said, without giving further details.

Iijima told North Korean officials that his nation’s basic policy is to pursue a comprehensive solution to the issues of abductions, nuclear weapons and missiles, Kyodo News reported, without saying where it obtained the information.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry called Iijima’s trip “unhelpful” in coordinating international efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, as Glyn Davies, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea, traveled to South Korea, China and Japan earlier this week.

“We are paying constant attention to nuclear and missile developments in North Korea,” Naoko Saiki, Japan’s deputy Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said yesterday, declining to comment further “because it relates to an intelligence matter.”

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