North Korea launched a barrage of missiles Saturday, less than one week after being praised by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for showing “restraint” in its weapons program.
Pyongyang fired three short-range ballistic missiles from the Kangwon province, according to US Pacific Command. The launches occurred in the midst of the US and South Korea’s annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian military exercises.
Cmdr. David Benham, spokesman for US Pacific Command, said the first and third missiles “failed in flight” and the second missile launch “appears to have blown up almost immediately.”
Though North Korea says it now has the ability to send missiles to the US mainland, US defense officials said these short-range missiles did not pose a threat to North America or Guam.
Tough talk amidst military exercises
The missile test capped yet another eventful week on the Korean peninsula, which began with the annual military exercises between the US and South Korea.
Both parties say the training is defensive in nature, but North Korea sees it as provocative and hostile, perhaps even preparation for an invasion.
A day before the exercises began Monday, Pyongyang warned the US was risking an “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war.” North Korean state-run media said the country’s military could strike the US at any time and that neither Guam, Hawaii nor the US mainland could avoid the “merciless strike.”
“The Korean People’s Army is keeping a high alert, fully ready to contain the enemies. It will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of the preventive war is spotted,” North Korean state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun said.
However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday attempted to dial down tensions by noting that there had been no missile tests or “provocative acts” from North Korea since a United Nations Security Council resolution sanctioning Pyongyang was passed earlier this month.
Tillerson called North Korea’s “restraint” pleasing and said it could open a pathway for dialogue in the near future.
Barely a day later, photographs emerged showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting missile and missile-fuel components. State media arm, KCNA, said Kim had visited the country’s Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Sciences and instructed the institute to produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips.
Analysts said the photos were a sign from North Korea to the world, to show their solid fuel missile program is improving at a steady rate.
Solid fuel missiles are faster and easier to deploy, and harder to catch before they launch because there’s a lot less to be done in terms of launch preparation. All US and Russian ballistic missiles are solid-fuel models.
Tensions rise as Pyongyang shoots more missiles
North Korea has conducted a series of ballistic missile tests this year, increasing tensions with the United States, South Korea and Japan.
It has fired more than 20 missiles since February, further perfecting its technology with each launch. In July, it launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, which North Korea claims could reach “anywhere in the world.”
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump issued an extraordinary ultimatum to North Korea, warning Pyongyang not to make any more threats against the United States or it will “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson quickly tried to allay fears of a military confrontation, saying there was no sign that the threat level from North Korea had changed and that Americans should “sleep well at night.”
In a conciliatory move before that, Tillerson said the United States was willing to sit down for talks with North Korea, but only if it relinquishes its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
South Korea, Japan, Guam react to latest launch
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement after the Saturday’s test, saying “the projectiles” were launched around 6:49 a.m. Saturday and flew about 250 kilometers (155 miles) into the Sea of Japan, or East Sea.
South Korea planned to convene its national security council several hours after the missile launches, the presidential office said in a statement.
“Our military is closely monitoring for North Korean additional provocation and strengthened surveillance and security postures and maintaining readiness postures,” the South Korean release said.
Guam’s governor’s office in a statement said the missile launches pose “no immediate threat” to Guam.
“Although the launches were no threat to Guam, it reminds us that we cannot be complacent,” said George Charfauros, the homeland security adviser on the US territory. “We place confidence in our US Department of Defense capabilities and continue open communications with our federal and military partners.”
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters Saturday morning the launches would not directly affect Japan’s security, and that no missiles have reached Japan’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone.