US announces seizure of cargo ship as allied militaries analyse weapons.

The United States and South Korean militaries evaluated the two projectiles North Korea flew Thursday as short-range missiles, a South Korean military official said yesterday, after the North's second launch in five days raised jitters about an unravelling detente between the Koreas and the future of nuclear negotiations with Washington.

The weapons flew 420km and 270km respectively, according to Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defence Ministry. The launches were seen as Pyongyang's brushback pitch toward Washington over deadlocked nuclear negotiations as they continue to struggle with mismatched demands in sanctions relief and disarmament.

Also yesterday the US said it has seized a North Korean cargo ship that was used to violate international sanctions, a first-of-its-kind enforcement action at a tense moment in relations.

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The Wise Honest, North Korea's second largest cargo ship, was detained in April last year as it travelled toward Indonesia. It's now being moved to American Samoa, Justice Department officials said.

The public disclosure, made hours after the missile launch, that the vessel is now in US custody may further inflame tensions, though US officials said their timing was not in response.

The 177m Wise Honest was used for coal transports to ports abroad, according to the Justice Department complaint, generating badly needed revenue for North Korea. The ship also delivered heavy machinery back to North Korea. The coal trade itself is believed to fund the isolated country's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

Experts say the missile launched on Thursday was identical to the one the North launched last Saturday, which appeared to be a solid-fuel missile modelled after Russia's Iskander short-range ballistic missile system.

Some analysts say the new missile could be capable of delivering warheads and striking targets within the entire Korean Peninsula.

What was launched Thursday is a crucial detail, as North Korea is banned by the United Nations from testing ballistic missiles.

A major missile test could result in more sanctions, and the North's so far unsuccessful push for large-scale sanctions relief is at the heart of the diplomatic impasse with Washington.

The latest launches came as US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun visited South Korea, and hours after the North described its firing of rocket artillery and an apparent short-range ballistic missile on Saturday as a regular and defensive military exercise. North Korea also ridiculed South Korea for criticising those launches.

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Trump told reporters the weapons were smaller, short-range missiles, but: "Nobody's happy about it." He has met with Kim at two summits but said yesterday: "I don't think they're ready to negotiate."

South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged North Korea to refrain from actions that could impede diplomacy.

Some analysts have said that if North Korea resumes testing the kind of longer-range banned ballistic weapons that it fired in unusually large numbers in 2017 — when many feared a US-North Korea standoff could end in war — it may signal that North Korea is turning away from diplomacy.

- AP