North Korea fired what appeared to be a submarine-launched ballistic missile, Seoul said Wednesday, just days before Washington and Pyongyang were set to resume long-stalled nuclear talks.
Pyongyang frequently couples diplomatic overtures with military moves, as a way of maintaining pressure on negotiating partners, analysts say, and may believe this weapons system gives it added leverage.
The United States voiced alarm, with a State Department spokesperson calling on North Korea ‘to refrain from provocations’ and ‘remain engaged in substantive and sustained negotiations’ aimed at bringing stability and denuclearisation.
A proven submarine-based missile capability would take the North's arsenal to a new level, allowing deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a second-strike capability in the event of an attack on its military bases.
The South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected a ballistic missile early Wednesday fired in an easterly direction from the sea, northeast of the North Korean port of Wonsan.
The missile was ‘believed to be one of the Pukkuksong models’, the JCS said in a statement, referring to a line of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) under development by the North.
Launches like this ‘are not helpful to efforts to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and we urge North Korea again to stop immediately,’ it added.
The North carried out a successful test of the solid-fuel Pukkuksong-1, also known as KN-11, in August 2016 which flew around 500 kilometres.
In July, North Korean state media had published pictures of Kim Jong Un inspecting a new type of submarine, fuelling concerns that Pyongyang was pushing ahead with an SLBM programme.
Analysts say the missile is believed to have been fired at a lofted angle, adding it is likely an intermediate-range ballistic missile with an actual flight range of around 2,000 kilometres.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, drew a line between a recent series of launches by Pyongyang and Wednesday's test, calling it ‘an explicitly nuclear weapons system’.
A part of the missile landed in waters within Japan's exclusive economic zone -- a 200-kilometre band around Japanese territory -- Tokyo said.
‘The launching of ballistic missiles violates UN Security Council resolutions and we strongly protest and strongly condemn it,’ Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
The North is banned from ballistic missile launches under UN Security Council resolutions.
- 'Negotiating position' -
The launch came a day after the North's Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said Pyongyang had agreed to hold working-level talks with Washington later this week.
The two sides will have ‘preliminary contact’ on Friday and hold negotiations the following day, Choe said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus later confirmed the talks, which she said would happen ‘within the next week’.
‘It seems North Korea wants to make its negotiating position quite clear before talks even begin,’ Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest in Washington said after Wednesday's launch.
‘Pyongyang seems set to push Washington to back off from past demands of full denuclearisation for what are only promises of sanctions relief,’ he added.
It is not the first time the North has followed up an offer of talks with a weapons test.
Pyongyang tested what it called a ‘super-large’ rocket launcher last month just hours after Choe released a statement saying that the North was willing to resume working-level talks with Washington.
Negotiations between the two have been deadlocked since a second summit between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump in February ended without a deal.
The two agreed to restart dialogue during an impromptu meeting at the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas in June, but the North's anger at a US refusal to cancel joint military drills with South Korea put the process on hold.
Pyongyang also carried out several weapons tests since the meeting that have been downplayed by Trump, who dismissed them as ‘small’ and insisted his personal ties with Kim remained good.
Relations thawed last month after Trump fired his hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who Pyongyang had repeatedly denounced as a warmonger.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China, North Korea's main ally, said that the United States needed to ease its pressure campaign on Pyongyang.
Speaking to reporters, Wang said that North Korea has ‘taken a series of positive measures’ and that the United States should ‘meet halfway and make a positive response.’
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