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Hours After Agreeing to Resume Talks, North Korea Launches Missile

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched at least one ballistic missile toward waters near Japan early Wednesday, just hours after announcing it had agreed to resume long-stalled talks with the United States over its nuclear weapons program.

The missile was launched from waters near Wonsan, a city east of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the South Korean military said in a statement. It said that the missile, a version of the North’s Pukguksong ballistic missile, flew 280 miles to the east while reaching a height of 565 miles.

It was unclear whether the missile that launched on Wednesday was fired from a submarine, a ship, or a platform on or under the water. The North’s solid-fuel Pukguksong can be launched from either land or a submarine, although the office of President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said this projectile could have been the submarine-launched version.

North Korea last successfully launched its Pukguksong-1 in August 2016 after several test failures, but there have been indications since then that it was developing a more powerful version. In May 2017, it launched a land-based Pukguksong-2 missile.

Along with its intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile programs pose one of the biggest military threats to the United States and its regional allies because they can extend the range of the North’s nuclear missiles. Submarine-launched missiles are also harder to detect in advance.

In July, the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, inspected a newly built submarine that South Korean officials said had three missile-launch tubes, compared with its older Sinpo-class submarine that could fire only one missile.

Japan said North Korea had launched a ballistic missile that flew far enough to fall in its exclusive economic zone. Wednesday’s test was the first time a North Korean missile had landed in Japanese waters in nearly two years, evoking memories of a period when the Japanese public was awakened to alarms warning of potential missile landings.

The launch also comes as Japan and South Korea are increasingly at odds, and as the South plans to withdraw from a military intelligence sharing pact with Japan.

It was the ninth time North Korea had tested ballistic missiles or other projectiles since late July, and was its first weapons test since Sept. 10, when it fired what it called two super-large caliber rockets. After the last weapons test, Mr. Kim indicated that his country would conduct more tests of the same system.

In Tokyo, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said that what was initially thought to be two missiles was actually one that split into two. One of those pieces fell inside Japan’s economic zone off its Shimane prefecture. Japan said it had no immediate reports of damage to aircraft or ships nearby.

In a series of weapons tests this year, North Korea launched new types of short-range ballistic missiles and more powerful versions of multi-tube rocket launchers. Its new weapons have alarmed South Korea and Japan because they have longer ranges and are believed to be more difficult to intercept by missile defense systems.

North Korea’s latest test came a day after the South commemorated Armed Forces Day, during which it displayed newly acquired F-35 stealth jets. By showcasing the state-of-the-art combat aircraft, South Korea reinforced its commitment to its defense, even as it was trying to engage North Korea in dialogue. The North has accused the South of raising tensions through its purchase of the American jets.

Wednesday’s launch marked the first time a projectile fired by North Korea reached the Japanese exclusive economic zone since the North resumed its missile tests this year after a 17-month hiatus. The last North Korean missile that fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone was its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, launched in November 2017.

“We are aware of reports of a possible North Korean missile launch,” a senior Trump administration official said Tuesday night in Washington. “We are continuing to monitor the situation and consulting closely with our allies in the region.”

Just hours before the latest test, officials in North Korea and the United States said that they had agreed to resume official talks over the nuclear weapons program — the first substantive discussions since the two nations’ summit meeting in Hanoi in February failed to produce an accord.

Choe Son-hui, first vice foreign minister of North Korea, said her government and Washington had agreed to establish preliminary contact on Friday, to be followed by official, working-level negotiations on Saturday. The State Department confirmed the meeting, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had recently hinted was coming soon.

The recent history of such meetings has not been promising. President Trump began leader-to-leader meetings with Mr. Kim precisely because decades of lower-level meetings had resulted in temporary breakthroughs at best.

But 16 months after Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim reached a vague agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula — words that mean very different things in Pyongyang and Washington — the North Korean arsenal has steadily expanded, even in the absence of nuclear and intercontinental missile tests.

The talks this weekend would be the first since the Hanoi summit meeting, when the United States rejected Mr. Kim’s offer to close his core nuclear site in return for the lifting of the most onerous American sanctions.

Behind the scenes, American officials have struggled to come up with new proposals, including some that would take a more step-by-step approach to disarmament, rather than the rapid action that Mr. Trump has wanted.

Among the ideas the State Department is exploring is some kind of temporary “nuclear freeze” that would keep Mr. Kim from continuing to expand his arsenal, now estimated at 30 to 60 weapons and a more accurate, maneuverable collection of missiles.

A senior American diplomat said that part of the challenge was to keep any new talks from becoming a means for the North to delay the process of denuclearizing, creating just enough progress for Mr. Trump to press for a third summit meeting. That was implicit in a warning from Mr. Trump’s recently dismissed national security adviser, John R. Bolton, delivered in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday.

“Time works against those who oppose nuclear proliferation,” Mr. Bolton said. “A relaxed attitude to time is a benefit to the likes of North Korea and Iran.”

North Korean officials have repeatedly indicated their willingness to resume talks with Washington in recent weeks, praising the removal of Mr. Bolton as a “wise political decision.” They have long blamed hawkish aides to Mr. Trump, including Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo, for the stalemate in negotiations.

When Mr. Trump held his first summit meeting with Mr. Kim, in Singapore in June 2018, the North Korean leader committed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” in return for better ties with and security guarantees from the United States.

But subsequent talks quickly stalled over how to enact the vague agreement. The second meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, in Hanoi, ended without a deal on how fast and how thoroughly North Korea should dismantle its nuclear program and how soon the United States would ease its sanctions.

Since the Hanoi talks collapsed, North Korea has threatened to abandon diplomacy completely unless Washington returns to the negotiating table with a more flexible offer by the end of the year.

“It seems North Korea wants to make its negotiating position quite clear before talks even begin,” said Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest. “North Korea’s message is clear: Our capacity to cause trouble is increasing by the day.”

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