North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his force on high alert as their recent exercise coincided with a missile test in the United States.
At a time of relative calm on the Korean Peninsula, a stalled peace process has threatened to restart tensions between Cold War-era rivals as the two countries conducted missile tests Thursday within minutes of one another, apparently by coincidence. The official Korean Central News Agency reported the following day that Kim himself supervised the latest missile test, the second since breaking a 522-day pause on such activities earlier this week.
“Expressing satisfaction with the mobility, deployment and assault strike, Kim Jong Un said that some days ago, the defense units on the eastern front perfectly carried out their strike mission and today’s drill showed the full preparations of the defense units on the western front and the excellent ability of the units in the forefront area to carry out the task of strike, in particular,” the outlet reported.
“He stressed the need to further increase the capability of the defense units in the forefront area and on the western front to carry out combat tasks and keep full combat posture to cope with any emergency as required by the prevailing situation and in keeping with the Party’s strategic intention,” it added.
The Korean People’s Army fires short-range ballistic missiles in this undated photo released May 10 by the official Korean Central News Agency. North Korea conducted two rounds of ballistic missile tests in a week, its first such activity in nearly a year and a half. Korean Central News Agency
Kim also noted that “genuine peace and security of the country are guaranteed only by the strong physical force capable of defending its sovereignty” during the exercise also attended by senior ruling Korean Workers’ Party Central Committee officials Kim Phyong Hae, O Su Yong and Jo Yong Won.
The latest missile test was described as “short-range” by the South Korean military, which observed two projectiles fired out about 261 and 187 miles from western North Korea toward the Sea of Japan, known to both Seoul and Pyongyang as the East Sea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump communicated with one another and separately expressed reserved criticism toward the act.
Moon warned that such behavior “could make the current dialogue and negotiation phase difficult,” while Trump said “nobody’s happy about it” and suggested North Korea may not be “ready to negotiate.” Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters that “we’re going to stick to our diplomacy, and as you all know, we haven’t changed our operations or our posture, and we’ll continue to generate the readiness we need in case diplomacy fails.”
Within the 20-minute span of North Korea’s most recent test, however, the U.S. also launched a nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) some 4,000 miles from the California coast toward the Marshall Islands, in the middle of the Pacific. The act—which the Air Force argued was “not a response or reaction to world events or regional tensions”—was met with comparatively little global reaction, as was a nuclear-capable Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile test hours later that took place off the Florida coast and landed across the waters of the Atlantic near Namibia.
For both the U.S. and North Korea, it was the second time within the span of just over a week that the two powers had launched missiles. On Saturday, North Korea launched a volley of short-range projectiles from the east coast city of Wonsan just days after the U.S. tested another Minuteman III on a similar trajectory.
An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Rhode Island off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida, on May 9. The test came hours after both North Korea and the U.S. tested missiles that same day. John Kowalski/U.S. Navy
While Kim’s latest tests were the first since he suspended longer-range missile tests over a year ago, the short-range weapons did not compare to the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile he showed off in November 2017. The test followed two lesser-range Hwasong-14 tests that debuted the country’s ability to strike the mainland U.S. during a spike in tensions between two countries that went to war in the 1950s, with the U.S. backing South Korea and the communist Sino-Soviet alliance backing North Korea.
Trump and Kim took unprecedented steps last year toward ending this decades-long hostility by becoming the first leaders of their respective countries to meet face-to-face during a June summit in Singapore. Following their discussions, both men agreed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for peace, security and sanctions relief.
As progress slowed in the following months, Trump and Kim attended a follow-up in February in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, but talks ended early when Trump suggested that North Korea overstepped, while Pyongyang’s delegation blamed the U.S. side for its unwillingness to lift any sanctions.
Still, both sides have expressed a desire to keep their dialogue on track, even as the U.S. seized a North Korean coal ship captured last month by Indonesia amid accusations it violated international sanctions and Pyongyang froze communications regarding the return the remains of U.S. troops killed during the Korean War.