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North Korea fires 2 missiles in defiance of UN ban

North Korean soldiers.
Kim Jae-Hwan | AFP | Getty Images
North Korean soldiers.

North Korea fired two ballistic missiles off its east coast on Sunday, flouting a United Nations ban on the country testing such missiles. The test came four days before President Xi Jinping of China was scheduled to visit Seoul, South Korea, his first trip to the Korean Peninsula as Beijing’s leader.

The two Scud-type missiles flew 500 kilometers, or about 310 miles, and landed in waters between North Korea and Japan, officials at the Office of Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Korean military said on Sunday. North Korea regularly tests short-range rockets and missiles. It fired three short-range projectiles off its coast on Thursday. Its state media later said that its leader, Kim Jong-un, supervised what it called the test firings of a new type of precision-guided missile.

The North’s neighboring countries found its firings on Sunday more provocative because a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions banned the country from testing any ballistic missile technology for fear it was developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.

Although North Korea had technical reasons to test its missiles, outside analysts said that the country often timed such test-firings to make a political impact in the region, especially when the leaders or negotiators of neighboring governments gathered to discuss their policies on the North. North Korea launched two midrange Rodong ballistic missiles in March, when President Barack Obama met with President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague and condemned its nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Xi was scheduled to arrived in Seoul on Thursday for a two-day trip that included a summit meeting with Ms. Park. While announcing Mr. Xi’s trip to Seoul, Qin Gang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, maintained that China had a “fair and objective position” on the Korean Peninsula.

But the South Korean news media played up the fact that Mr. Xi was the first Chinese president to visit Seoul before Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, after assuming the top leadership in Beijing. Some interpreted it as a possible sign that Beijing might be rearranging its priorities between South and North Korea, China's traditional ally.

Ms. Park has been eager to reach out to Beijing, meeting Mr. Xi four times and urging China to use its economic leverage to curb North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

In contrast, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has never met Mr. Xi or visited Beijing since he took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011.

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Analysts here said that that had as much to do with Mr. Kim's preoccupation with consolidating his domestic control as with Beijing's growing frustration with Pyongyang, which ignored China's appeals to conduct its third nuclear test in February 2012.

There have been indications that North Korea was becoming increasingly unsettled that its economic dependence on trade with China had deepened while it struggled to overcome United Nations sanctions.

While executing Jang Song-thaek, Mr. Kim's powerful uncle, late last year, North Korea accused him and his followers of giving away its natural resources at cheap prices to China.

On Saturday, the North's main party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, carried a full front-page editorial emphasizing the country's "juche" — or self-reliance — ideology and warning against "the pressure from big countries."

Pyongyang has recently appeared to bolster its ties with Moscow as a possible counterbalance against China. On Saturday, North Korea and Russia staged a rare joint march of their military music bands through central Pyongyang, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

Russia increased oil exports to North Korea last year and renovated its rail link with the country, while a lack of official oil exports to North Korea in China's recent trade data triggered speculation that Beijing might be increasing economic pressure on the North. In April, a senior Russian government delegation visited Pyongyang with a gift of fire engines. Russia has also recently agreed to write off most of the $11 billion North Korea owed to the old Soviet Union.