SEOUL - U.S. President Donald Trump has said for weeks he has "no problem" with North Korea testing short-range missiles, insisting they are not a threat to the United States. It seems Pyongyang got the message.
North Korean state media on Sunday cited Trump's comments, hours after rolling out what appears to be yet another new short-range missile system that threatens U.S. allies in the region.
In an article from the official Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesperson blasted South Korea for criticizing its recent launches.
"Even the U.S. president made a remark which in effect recognized the self-defensive rights of a sovereign state, saying that it is a small missile test that a lot of countries do," the spokesperson said.
Multiple missile tests
North Korea on Saturday conducted its fifth ballistic missile launch in just more than two weeks, and seventh in the past two months. In total, North Korea has unveiled three new short-range missile systems during that period, all of which appear to be designed to evade or overwhelm U.S.-South Korean missile defenses.
On Saturday, Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently offered a "small apology" for the tests and vowed to stop the launches as soon as the current round of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises end.
Trump says Kim sent the apology in a personal letter that blasted the U.S.-South Korean military drills.
"It was a long letter, much of it complaining about the ridiculous and expensive exercises," Trump said in the tweet. "It was also a small apology for testing the short range missiles, and that this testing would stop when the exercises end."
The tests violate United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban North Korea from any ballistic missile activity. But Trump, who wants to continue talks with North Korea, has shrugged off the tests.
"Kim knows that he can continue to launch these short-range missiles without consequences. He can continue to provoke, so long as he keeps emitting signals of hope to President Trump directly," said Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst who now works at the U.S.-based Rand Corp.
"Kim's plodding along faithfully according to plan. He's dialing up the optempo (operational tempo) of his engagement with President Trump - remaining on our radar through these launches and friendly missives - to put the U.S. in a tighter bind," she adds.
The U.S. and South Korea began their latest round of military exercises Monday. They are scheduled to last until Aug. 20.
The drills have been scaled back to help pave the way for talks with North Korea, which views the exercises as preparation to invade. But that has satisfied neither Trump nor Kim, who have found common ground in their dislike of the drills.
"I've never been a fan" of the drills, Trump said Friday. "You know why? I don't like paying for it. We should be reimbursed for it." Trump added that he only approved the latest exercise because it helped prepare for "a turnover of various areas to South Korea."
"I like that because it should happen," Trump added.
The latest U.S.-South Korean drills are aimed in part at testing South Korea's ability to retake operational control from the U.S. during wartime. The U.S. has about 28,500 troops in South Korea.
Trump has for decades complained that U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan and others are not paying enough for U.S. military protection. North Korea appears to be exploiting those complaints in an attempt to split the alliance between Washington and Seoul.
"Breaking the alliance is exactly what Pyongyang wants, which is why it makes all this noise and tries to blame U.S.-South Korea drills for its lack of cooperation," says Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
"Pyongyang looks to exploit Trump's preoccupation with alliance cost-sharing as well as South Korea's deteriorating relations with Japan. Kim appeals to Trump directly about the exercises, trying to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul," Easley said.
Trump earlier this week announced in a tweet that South Korea had agreed to pay "substantially" more for the U.S. troop presence. South Korea refuted that allegation, saying cost-sharing negotiations with the United States have not yet begun.
The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has responded cautiously to Trump's comments and shrugged off North Korea's latest provocations. Moon has made talks with North Korea a top priority.
But Moon now finds himself in an increasingly awkward position, with both Trump and Kim openly playing off each other in order to bash Seoul.
Meanwhile, Trump has given few signs that he will loosen the pressure on South Korea.
At a fundraiser in New York Friday, Trump made fun of Moon's accent "while describing how he caved in to Trump's tough negotiations," according to a report in the New York Post.
"So why are we paying for their defense," Trump said, according to the report. "They've got to pay."