N. Korea Tests Don’t End ‘Provocation Pause,’ U.S. Says

North Korea’s test firings of six short-range missiles in three days may not reflect a return to a pattern of provocations by Kim Jong Un’s regime, according to the U.S. military’s top spokesman.

The launches don’t in themselves end a “provocation pause” and “do not necessarily violate” North Korea’s international obligations, Pentagon spokesman George Little, told reporters yesterday in Washington. “I think we can safely say we remain in a period of tensions that are relatively small-scale by comparison” in the months after Kim’s government tested a nuclear device in February.

North Korea has not fired any projectiles today as of 10:35 a.m. local time and such actions appear to have “significantly diminished,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said today. The regime, which fired two missiles yesterday and four over the weekend, said it is exercising its right to test-fire rockets as part of regular military drills.

North Korea’s threats have moderated since annual U.S.- South Korean military exercises ended last month. Officials in Washington and Seoul have intensified diplomatic efforts to ease tensions and boost China’s participation in global sanctions that target the North’s nuclear weapons program.

“We are monitoring what is happening,” Little said. “We hope that over time the North Koreans continue to look hard at the need for peace and stability on the peninsula.”

Won Rises

South Korea’s won rose 0.5 percent against the dollar after yesterday touching a four-week low, while the benchmark Kospi stock index was little changed at 1:47 p.m. in Seoul.

The totalitarian state’s official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday that its missile exercises were intended to boost deterrence against rising threats from the U.S. and South Korea. Before last weekend, attention had focused on whether North Korea would conduct a test firing of its midrange Musudan rocket.

With a range of 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) to 3,500 miles, the Musudan poses 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. North Korea doesn’t yet have the ability to launch a nuclear-armed missile, President Barack Obama said on April 16.

While South Korea sees no unusual North Korean troop movements, its military is “closely monitoring the situation” and is ready to respond to any escalation, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim said.

‘Armed Protest’

“The North is likely testing these missiles as an armed protest against the recent military drills jointly conducted by the U.S. and South Korea” in March and April, said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

After the nuclear weapon test in February, Kim’s regime threatened preemptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the U.S. The warnings led the U.S., South Korea and Japan to boost defenses and raised concern in China, the North’s biggest ally.

North Korea’s pattern of hostile behavior seems more diverse and provocations since its long-range missile test in December “are more frequent and intense in comparison to the past,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said today in a speech in Seoul.

‘Safeguarding Peace’

“Safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean peninsula is inevitable and what everyone wants,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday. “We hope under the current circumstances all parties will do things that will ease tensions and improve relationships.”

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

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

China Evolving

“There are some indications that China is slowly evolving its thoughts and stance vis-a-vis North Korea,” Yun said. North Korea’s “erratic behavior” is taking a toll on China and there is a “growing recognition” the North is becoming “a liability, instead of a strategic asset,” he added.

The U.S. Air Force said yesterday that it will conduct a test of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental missile today from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The launch, originally scheduled for April 9, was postponed to avoid misinterpretation by Kim’s regime as preparation for a preemptive attack to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of access to classified intelligence.

(Updates with South Korean comment in third paragraph.)
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