US Shouldn't 'Overreact' to North Korean Missile Tests, Defense Secretary Says

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Kim Jong Un
This Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, photo provided Sunday, Aug. 25, by the North Korean government, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, smiles after the test firing of an unspecified missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

The U.S. must be measured in its reaction to North Korea's latest round of missile tests in order to keep diplomatic channels open, the head of the Defense Department said Wednesday.

North Korea fired off what appeared to be a pair of short-range ballistic missiles from its east coast on Saturday. The launch, which marked the seventh in about a month, is believed to be retaliation for a military exercise between U.S. and South Korean troops, which has been significantly downgraded from past training events.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters in a packed Pentagon briefing room that there's reason to be concerned about the tests, but he cautioned against a reaction that ends diplomatic talks with the North Koreans.

"We want to understand what they're doing, why they're doing it, et cetera," Esper said. "But on the other hand, we're not going to overreact. We want to take a measured response and make sure that we don't close the door to diplomacy."

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President Donald Trump, who has long sought to smooth relations between the U.S. and North Korea, took a similar approach during his comments at the G-7 summit in France this weekend.

"I'm not happy about it but, again, he's not in violation of any agreement," Trump said during a press briefing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "... A lot of people are testing those missiles, not just him. We are in the world of missiles, folks, whether you like it or not."

North Korea, in a recent article in a state newspaper, accused the U.S. of "double dealing," by holding talks with the country while at the same time conducting military exercises with the South Koreans, according to the South Korea-based Yonhap News Agency.

While denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have broken down in recent months, Esper said coming up with an agreement is still the end goal.

"At the end of the day, we will get to an irreversible, verifiable, complete denuclearization of the peninsula," he said. "The best way to do that is through a political agreement. So we don't want to close the door by overreacting to their tests."

But there are new concerns about North Korea's future capabilities after satellite photos appeared to confirm the country's claims that it's building a ballistic missile submarine.

When asked whether there would be a return to larger-scale military exercises with South Korea in light of the North's recent behavior, Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford stressed that they'll do what must be done to maintain readiness.

So far though, Dunford said, the downsized exercises have not harmed readiness.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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