SEOUL: North Korea vowed on Thursday to push ahead with further strategic guided-missile tests, defying international calls to curb its weapons program as the Chinese president arrived in Seoul for a visit seen as a snub to Pyongyang.
“[North Korea] will continue to hold drills of launching high-precision tactical guided missiles,” said a spokesman for the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Strategic Force, calling the tests a “legitimate exercise” of sovereignty.
North Korea has conducted a series of missile tests in the past week —seen by some a display of pique with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to Seoul.
China is North Korea’s sole major ally, but while Xi has met four times with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye—including two summits—he has yet to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
The United States criticized the recent missile launches as “problematic” and “destabilizing,” while Seoul and Tokyo also lodged protests.
The first in the series of tests on Thursday was hailed by the North’s state media as that of a new “cutting-edge” guided missile which marked a “breakthrough” in the North’s military capabilities.
The South said the second test on Sunday was of two short-range Scud missiles with a range of about 500 kilometers.
On Wednesday, the North fired two rockets with a range of around 180 kilometers (110 miles).
The South said there were a number of possible motives for the multiple tests, ranging from a display for domestic consumption, to a show of strength for the international community or a warning to Seoul.
Xi’s first visit
It was Xi Jinping’s first trip as head of state to the perennially volatile Korean peninsula, and his second summit with Park, who visited China last year.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is still waiting for an invitation to Beijing — a calculated rebuff that speaks to the strained relationship between Pyongyang and its historic and most important ally.
“No previous Chinese leader has put South Korea before and above the North like this,” said Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea expert at Leeds University.
In what some saw as a display of pique at Xi’s visit, North Korea conducted a series of rocket and missile launches over the past week and pledged further tests in the future.
And Pyongyang scored a diplomatic victory of its own Thursday, as Japan announced it was revoking some of its unilateral sanctions on North Korea after progress in talks on the Cold War kidnapping of Japanese nationals.
Japan and North Korea do not have formal diplomatic ties, and the announcement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a significant step forward for a relationship that has been testy for decades.
After their talks, Xi and Park were expected to sign a joint communique, with Seoul hoping for a strong statement on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But analysts said Beijing was unlikely to up the rhetorical ante by any significant degree.
“That would go against China’s traditional diplomatic pattern,” said Kim Joon-Hyung, professor of politics at Handong Global University.
“Xi will probably keep to the general line of urging the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, rather than criticizing the North directly,” Kim added.
As the North’s diplomatic protector and chief economic benefactor, China has repeatedly been pressured by the international community to use its leverage to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.
But while Beijing has become increasingly frustrated with the North’s missile and nuclear tests, it remains wary of penalizing the isolated state too heavily.