Esper: US won't 'overreact' to North Korean missile launches

Esper: US won't 'overreact' to North Korean missile launches
© Greg Nash

TOKYO — Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan Japan's Hormuz dilemma Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces MORE said on Tuesday that the United States will not overreact to recent North Korean missile launches in an effort to preserve denuclearization talks.

“While we take these launchings seriously, we monitor them, we try to understand what they’re doing and why,” Esper told reporters traveling with him to Japan. "We also need to be careful not to overreact and not to get ourselves in a situation where diplomacy is closed off."

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North Korea earlier Tuesday fired another round of projectiles, the fourth such launch in less than two weeks.

Esper confirmed the missile launches, and said the Pentagon tracked them as short-range ballistic missiles.

South Korean officials said the missiles were fired from South Hwanghae Province and flew cross-country into the sea. They added that the launches came in response to joint military exercises between Washington and Seoul, which began on Aug. 3 and will last roughly two weeks.

Esper — who is visiting Japan and South Korea this week as part of his first international trip since being sworn in as Pentagon chief on July 23 — said he would discuss the missile launches with his counterparts in both nations.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE first met with North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnHong Kong protests present Trump, Xi with painful choices North Korea launches missile tests, insults South Korean president Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE in June 2018 to attempt to broker a deal to have the isolated nation end its nuclear program. The two sides signed a vague agreement committing to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Trump, in an effort to foster further diplomacy, also announced the U.S. military would stall its twice-yearly, large-scale joint exercises with South Korea.

Talks have stalled since then, however, and a second summit between Trump and Kim in February in Vietnam ended without a formal agreement. The two went on to attend a third summit in June in the Demilitarized Zone, but also failed there to reach a final accord.

Trump in recent days has dismissed the latest North Korean missile tests as “standard” and not in violation of an earlier denuclearization agreement.

North Korea, meanwhile, maintains that joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises violate agreements made between Trump and Kim.

The military exercises, known as Dong Maeng, are a scaled-back version of the annual drill previously called Ulchi Freedom Guardian, though North Korea has still called them “hostile.”

Asked on Tuesday whether there are plans to change future military exercises with Seoul, Esper replied, “Not at this point.”

“We’ve made some adjustments after the presidents’ meeting last year and we’re still abiding by those and, again, in order to open the door for diplomacy, but at the same time we need to maintain our readiness and making sure that we’re prepared,” he said.

A senior U.S. defense official later told reporters that Trump administration officials “haven’t seen the progress” from North Korea in working toward denuclearization or reciprocating diplomatic gestures in scaling back its own military drills.

“We’d like to see them also respond in a way that says that they want to create space for diplomacy and work through these issues at the negotiating table. They haven’t. We’ll see what happens,” the official said.