US-NK missile launches

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON/SEOUL, May 21 (Yonhap) -- The Pentagon sought Monday to play down a stream of North Korean short-range missile launches, saying tensions on the peninsula are low compared with "a few months ago."

The U.S. military also announced a plan to test-fire a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile this week, a move that it delayed last month amid worries over Pyongyang's provocations.

Speaking to reporters, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said, "We have noticed broadly that North Korea has ratcheted back its provocative actions in recent weeks, and its bellicose rhetoric. We hope that is a trend they hope to follow.”

"A few months ago, we saw underground nuclear tests, we saw long-range missile tests, we saw heated rhetoric," he added. "So I think we can safely say that we remain in a period of tensions that are relatively on a small scale by comparison."

He said North Korea's launch of six short-range missiles, although the acts can be construed as provocative, "do not necessarily violate their international obligations."

Pyongyang is banned from conducting any launch using ballistic missile technology under U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Seoul, however, issued a different view. "Given U.N. resolutions banning (the North's) missile launch using rockets, it could be seen as a violation of them," Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said in a briefing on Tuesday.

Although South Korea is still determining what types of projectiles -- missile or rocket -- the North has fired, it is reportedly believing the projectiles fired over the past three days to be a modified version of KN-02, a type of ballistic missiles.

But, the U.S. is reportedly assuming that the North test-fired large-caliber multiple rocket launchers, which do not use ballistic technology.

Analysts in Seoul said the U.N. is not likely to punish the North for the recent launches, considering that it has only reacted in the past to the North's seriously provocative activities, including nuclear tests or long-range missile launches.

The North's state media described the launches as part of "intense military exercises" to bolster its defense capability and exercise "the legitimate right of any sovereign country."

Little said, however, the U.S. and its allies remain watchful and will continue to monitor what happens on the Korean Peninsula.

"The North Koreans have been known to shift tactics and behavior on short notice," he said. "And we're mindful of their behavior in the past."

The State Department reiterated calls for the North to refrain from provocations.

"We're urging them to exercise restraint and improve relations with the neighbors," the department's deputy spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, said at a press briefing.

Experts agreed that the North's latest missile move does not contravene U.N. sanctions.

"They test-fire the KN-02 all the time. It's not a ballistic missile," Bruce Bechtol, associate professor of political science at Angelo State University in Texas, told Yonhap News Agency by phone.

"For short range missile tests like the KN-02, that's just a standard military test, a training exercise. Those are anti-ship missiles, and they're going to do that two or three times a year anyway, no matter what the geopolitical situation is," added Bechtol, known for his expertise on North Korea issues.

"I wouldn't think that they're trying to do any signaling on that. Now, if they test a ballistic missile, that would probably mean they were trying to send us a signal but simply testing KN-02, I mean, they do that all the time," he said.

The U.S. plans to test-launch the Minuteman III long-range missile on Tuesday after more than a month's delay aimed at diffusing military tensions on the Korean peninsula that sharply soared in April.

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