North Korea's consecutive missile launches are apparently aimed at putting pressure on the United States to drop its one-sided denuclearization demands on Pyongyang by humiliating President Donald Trump, diplomatic experts say.
As Washington is still committed to maintaining sanctions against Pyongyang until it attains "complete" denuclearization, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may step up provocations in the weeks and months ahead to gain concessions from Trump, who is keen to achieve results for re-election.
The latest missile launches also indicate that Kim has little intention to talk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although Abe voiced readiness earlier this week to meet with the North Korean leader "without conditions," one of the experts said.
North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range missiles off its east coast on Thursday afternoon, South Korea's military said, five days after it launched multiple projectiles -- including one appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile, which would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
At their Feb. 27-28 summit in Hanoi, Kim and Trump fell short of a deal over the gap between Washington's insistence on denuclearization and Pyongyang's demand for sanctions relief.
Kim has sought the lifting of international economic sanctions designed to prevent Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile development, saying his country has started to implement concrete steps toward denuclearization.
The Trump administration, however, has argued that the relaxation of the sanctions would require North Korea to scrap all its nuclear facilities and programs, showing no sign of making a compromise with Pyongyang.
Trump has "repeatedly trumpeted North Korea's unilateral decision to stop missile testing as one of the concrete deliverables for the United States and the region," said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Prior to the presidential election campaign next year, North Korea seems to believe that resumption of missile launches would "bring disgrace on" Trump, which could prompt the U.S. president to "accept a bargain," a diplomat in Beijing said.
Foreign affairs analysts echoed the view, with Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan, saying, "Kim has yet again punched a hole in Trump's wishful thinking about a landmark nuclear deal."
The North Korean leader "is walking a fine line of provoking and offering to negotiate," Kingston said, adding, "He will try to get as many goodies as he can but give up as little as possible."
Another diplomat in Beijing also told Kyodo News that North Korea now feels that "without pressure, there is no motivation for the United States to really negotiate."
Since November 2017, North Korea had refrained from carrying out ballistic missile tests banned under U.N. resolutions.
The recent rocket launches took place just weeks after Kim held his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin since becoming North Korea's supreme leader in the wake of the death of his father in December 2011.
Some pundits pointed out that Kim's failure to receive a positive outcome from the summit with Putin in late April could explain the restart of Pyongyang's missile launches.
To break the diplomatic deadlock, Kim could attempt to meet with Abe, who has close ties with Trump, the pundits added. Abe is the only leader who has not held dialogue with Kim among member nations of the long-stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.
Abe, meanwhile, had suggested a future summit with Kim would not be possible without a guarantee of progress, but he said following a phone conversation with Trump on Monday, "To resolve the abduction issue, I myself need to face Chairman Kim without conditions."
Nevertheless, Kingston is skeptical about the possibility of Abe and Kim meeting in the near future.
"Last week Abe said he wants talks without conditions and the reply has been salvos of missiles -- not a promising basis for productive discussions," Kingston said.
Relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang are stuck in a stalemate over the long-standing issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents, with Abe having stated that tackling the matter is his "life's work."
Japan claims that 17 of its citizens were abducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, five of whom were repatriated in 2002, and suspects North Korea was involved in many more disappearances.
North Korea has insisted that the abduction issue has been "already resolved," while asking Japan to atone for its past military occupation and colonial rule of Korea.
(Dahee Kim contributed reporting from Seoul)