POLITICAL NEWS - The US and South Korea will press ahead with joint military exercises, a Pentagon official said, defying demands from a furious Pyongyang for their cancellation as it carries out a series of weapons tests.
North Korea fired what Seoul called two short-range ballistic missiles on Wednesday after two similar launches last week, one of which Pyongyang described as a "solemn warning to the South Korean warmongers" over the planned military drills.
The joint exercises are set to begin on Monday and last for just over two weeks after the US and South Korea scaled them down earlier this year amid a flurry of diplomatic exchanges with the North.
But the military activities on both sides raise questions over the prospects for an imminent start to negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.
Washington is Seoul's security ally and stations 28,500 troops in the South against its nuclear-armed neighbour and the annual drills have always enraged Pyongyang, which sees them as a rehearsal for invasion.
Peace and military exercises could "never go together", a commentary by the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Wednesday.
An "overall and permanent halt to anti-north war drills" was a "prerequisite" for improving inter-Korean relations, it added.
But despite the North's threats, a senior US official said Thursday there was "no adjustment or change in plans".
"We have to do two things," the official said.
"We have to give the diplomats appropriate space for their diplomacy and help create an environment that's conducive to the talks when they resume - which we expect."
Pyongyang and Washington are engaged in a long-running diplomatic process over the North's nuclear and missile programmes that has seen an unprecedented three encounters between their leaders in the space of a year.
President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to resume nuclear talks during their impromptu June meeting in the Demilitarised Zone that divides the peninsula, but that working-level dialogue has yet to begin.
On his way to the ASEAN regional forum in Bangkok, where the North will be high on the agenda, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the talks had been expected "within weeks" but were taking "a little bit longer" to start.
The North is banned from ballistic missile launches under UN Security Council resolutions but Seoul said the devices it fired on Wednesday from the Wonsan area on the east coast were two short-range ballistic missiles that travelled around 250 kilometres (155 miles).
US National Security Adviser John Bolton also described them as missiles.
"But you have to ask if, when the real diplomacy is going to begin," he told Fox Business. "We're still waiting to hear from North Korea."
On Thursday, KCNA said the test had involved "a newly developed large-calibre multiple launch guided rocket system".
Kim oversaw the successful firing and said the system would be "an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon", KCNA reported.
Similarly, Pyongyang said the devices it fired last week were a "new-type tactical guided weapon", but they were widely described as ballistic missiles, including by the US-South Korean Combined Forces Command and the government in Seoul.
At the time Trump - who has repeatedly touted his relationship with Kim, whose regime is widely accused of human rights abuses - brushed off the North's bellicose language, saying it was warning Seoul rather than Washington.
Diplomats said the United Nations Security Council was set to meet behind closed doors Thursday to discuss the North's actions on requests by Britain, France and Germany.
"We're going to discuss the latest missile launches that are violations of Security Council resolutions," a source told AFP.