North Korea test-fired several short-range missiles off its west coast today in a possible effort to show dissatisfaction toward the new South Korean government and lack of progress in nuclear disarmament talks.
The missile launches, reported by Yonhap news agency citing unidentified government officials, came a day after the government in Pyongyang expelled South Korean experts at a joint industrial zone just north of the shared border.
“This looks like typical measures on the part of the Kim Jong Il regime to exert pressure on South Korea and the U.S,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. “They want to attract attention and highlight the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula.”
South Korea, however, downplayed such concerns in a statement posted on a government website.
“The government regards North Korea’s missile firing as merely a part of its ordinary military training,” presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan told Yonhap, the statement said. “President Lee Myung-bak was briefed on the news of North Korean missile launches while presiding over a meeting of senior presidential secretaries, but didn’t show any extraordinary response.”
One of the reasons why the North may be feeling ignored is that the United States is preoccupied with a presidential election and seems unlikely to be pushing for any major breakthroughs in the laboring six-nation nuclear talks, Cheng said.
North Korea also is angry at Washington for maintaining that Pyongyang is still pursuing a uranium-based atomic bomb program, and asserts that it has taken steps to prove that the charge is untrue. “The United States is clinging to shabby magic to make us a criminal in order to save face,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the government’s official Korean Central News Agency.
“If the United States keeps delaying the resolution of the nuclear issue . . . it could gravely affect disablement of nuclear facilities,” the statement said.
North Korea had agreed last year to shut down and disable its sole functioning nuclear reactor, at Yongbyon, and other atomic facilities in exchange for aid and political concessions. Washington has insisted that it still has not received a full account of the North’s nuclear activities.
Now Pyongyang may be growing impatient, especially at the end of a harsh winter in which fuel and food shortages could be at their worst.
South Korean President Lee, who took office a month ago, has taken a tougher line toward the communists to the north than his predecessors, including threatening to link future economic cooperation with the resolution of the nuclear standoff, said Hak Soon Paik, a North Korean expert at the South’s Sejong Institute.
“They need the South Koreans’ help and economic cooperation, but the South Koreans’ new policy is clearly not well received, and this is a warning to show their discontent,” Hak said.