North Korea test-fires missiles after South Korea adopts tougher line

Missile launches and the expulsion of South Korean personnel from a joint industrial zone show Pyongyang's irritation with Seoul.

In what experts say is a sign of North Korea's growing frustration with South Korea's new, more critical government, North Korean forces test-launched several missiles into the Yellow Sea Friday morning.

The Associated Press reports that South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, citing unidentified South Korean officials, said that three ship-to-ship missiles were fired off North Korea's west coast. Seoul later confirmed the missile launch, but played down its significance.

The missile tests were part of routine training, South Korean presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said, declining to give further details on the type of rockets fired. He told reporters that Seoul was "closely monitoring the situation." "I believe North Korea would also not want a strain in inter-Korean relations," Lee said. The South's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North's "short-range guided missile" firing was believed to be an effort to test and improve the missile's performance. It did not give details such as exactly how many missiles were fired, saying such information belongs to military intelligence.

But experts say the missile launches are a signal of North Korea's dissatisfaction with South Korea and the US, reports Reuters.

Pyongyang was basically sending two messages with the launch, Keio University Korea expert Masao Okonogi said in Tokyo. One was aimed at the United States after talks in Geneva, showing the North's dissatisfaction with Washington's pressure to come clean on uranium enrichment and ties with Syria, he said. The other was a riposte to the ... shift in stance [of South Korea's new president, Lee Myung Bak]. "They are warning Seoul not to go back on things agreed between the North and the South," Okonogi said.

The Korea Times writes that Mr. Lee, a conservative, has opted for a more "pragmatic" approach to North Korea than his liberal predecessors' "sunshine policy." As a result, Mr. Lee's government has been more critical of the North's nuclear weapons program and possible human rights' violations.

In a step to meet his pledge, South Korea Thursday voted for a UN resolution condemning North Korea's alleged human rights abuses. President Lee has made it clear Wednesday that he would not engage in cross-border talks "against the people's will," hinting that South Korean-backed inter-Korean business programs would be put on the backburner until substantial progress is made at international negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear programs.

Pyongyang already expressed its unhappiness with Mr. Lee's Wednesday comments. The New York Times writes that on Thursday, North Korea expelled the South's officials from an industrial facility run jointly by North and South.

All 11 South Korean government officials who were based in a jointly run factory complex in Kaesong, 37 miles from Seoul on the north side of the two Koreas' border, returned to South Korea early Thursday after receiving three days to leave. South Korea said Thursday that North Korea was worsening its own isolation by disrupting the countries' budding economic cooperation. That cooperation can be seen in the Kaesong industrial complex, where 69 South Korean companies employ 23,000 North Koreans to make clothing, watches and other goods. ... The expulsion did not immediately affect the presence of hundreds of South Korean civilians in Kaesong or the operations of their plants. Nor did it stop the daily cross-border traffic of South Korean factory managers commuting from Seoul or of tourists visiting the North Korean town.

The Los Angeles Times adds that experts also see North Korea's missile tests as an effort by North Korea to "attract attention" from the US.

"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." ... 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.
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