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AP Explains: Motives for North Korea's latest missile test

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/04/2017 By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press
FILE - In this March 14, 2017 file photo, a U.S. Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter approaches the deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during the annual joint military exercise called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the United States at an unidentified location in the international waters, east of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast on Wednesday, April 5, South Korean officials said, in a continuation of its weapons launches made as the country is angrily reacting to annual military drills between U.S. and South Korean troops. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this March 14, 2017 file photo, a U.S. Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter approaches the deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during the annual joint military exercise called Foal Eagle between South Korea and the United States at an unidentified location in the international waters, east of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the waters off its east coast on Wednesday, April 5, South Korean officials said, in a continuation of its weapons launches made as the country is angrily reacting to annual military drills between U.S. and South Korean troops. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea rarely misses an opportunity to conduct a banned missile test to coincide with a high-profile world event that's expected to discuss the impoverished yet nuclear-armed country.

On Wednesday, it fired a newly developed missile into the sea, this time on the eve of the first meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

Did North Korea really want to steal the show ahead of the Trump-Xi summit? Or was the launch just part of its broader missile development programs, with outsiders reading too much from a routine weapons test?

What you should know about North Korea's latest missile test:

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DUAL PURPOSES?

Initial U.S. and South Korean assessments indicated that what North Korea fired was a medium-range KN-15 missile. Known as "Pukguksong-2" in North Korea, it's a newly developed, solid-fuel missile whose first publicly known test occurred in February. North Korea called that test a success, but some outside analysts said it might test the weapon again before deploying it.

So North Korea may not have minded giving a fresh look of its capabilities ahead of the Trump-Xi summit while sticking to its own weapons development schedule, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. South Korea's military issued a similar assessment.

North Korea has denied using big international events to get outside attention in order to wrest concessions and aid. When conducting nuclear and missiles tests in recent years, it has cited what it calls increasing U.S. military threats. Meanwhile, regional disarmament talks that provided the North with much-needed aid have been stalled for years.

"For North Korea, making advancements on missile and nuclear weapons technology is the clear priority, and political and diplomatic considerations come second," said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

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PAST PROVOCATIONS

North Korea has long fired missiles and detonated nuclear devices during major political events in South Korea and the United States, and before or during regional talks.

In 2009, weeks after Barack Obama took office for his first presidential term, it fired a long-range rocket in what critics called a disguised test of its long-range missile technology. Days before the 2013 inauguration of South Korea's then-President Park Geun-hye, the North conducted its third nuclear test, making world headlines again and inviting toughened U.N. sanctions.

The North has fired missiles when South Korea hosted the 2010 Group of 20 summit and other events, and while top U.S. officials were traveling in the region.

"I've joked before that they don't mind being hated, but they definitely hate to be ignored," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, said after Wednesday's launch. But he also said the missile launch was hard to understand because North Korea benefits from the U.S. and China being at odds with one another.

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NORTH KOREA'S GOALS

North Korea may want to send a message to both Washington and Beijing that it wants to be the subject of negotiations, with the country's young leader, Kim Jong Un, vowing to build a powerful, prosperous nation. North Korea could also have used its latest missile launch to show that it won't back down to pressures by the Trump administration.

If the launch doesn't have any political or diplomatic meaning, it could just be part of its bigger goal to build up a nuclear and missile arsenal. The launch also came amid ongoing annual South Korea-U.S. military drills that North Korea usually responds to with its own military training and missile tests.

"They cannot stop now and they are under heavy sanctions anyway," said Koh, the professor. "Until their nuclear and missile programs reach a point where they feel it could be used as a deterrent against the United States, the North probably won't show strong willingness for talks."

Kim, the analyst, also said it's likely the North will continue to test-fire missiles over the next few months as it continues to pursue a reliable nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the mainland U.S.

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