People watch a TV that shows a file picture of a North Korean missile for a news report on North Korea firing short-range ballistic missiles, in Seoul, South Korea. Image Credit: Reuters

SEOUL: North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles off its east coast, its second test in less than a week, increasing tensions as US officials continued to project optimism for a breakthrough in stalled nuclear talks.

The missiles were fired at 5.06 and 5.27am on Wednesday and travelled about 241km northeast before landing in the sea, according to the South Korean military.

The tests followed a similar launch six days earlier of a missile that North Korea called a “new-type tactical guided weapon” aimed at better evading interception by flying at a lower altitude. Those tests last week were personally overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who called the launch a “power demonstration” designed to “send a solemn warning” to the South Korean military as it gears up for military exercises with the US, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.

Recent rounds of weapons tests by North Korea, after an 18-month freeze amid talks between Kim and President Trump, have not involved nuclear weapons or the intercontinental missiles that increasingly threatened the US mainland in 2017. Even so, they mark escalating threats to South Korea, Japan and US troops in the region.

US officials have downplayed the significance of the recent tests, saying efforts to resume talks, as pledged by Trump and Kim at their surprise meeting at the demilitarised zone last month, remain on track.

“North Korea has engaged in activity before we were having diplomatic conversations far worse than this,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told Fox News after last week’s launches. “Lots of countries posture before they come to the table.”

On Tuesday, Pompeo said that Kim had yet to appoint a new negotiator since the Trump-Kim meeting but that he remained optimistic.

“We think they’ll be started before too long. I’m very hopeful,” he told reporters en route to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) conference in Thailand.

North Korea has increasingly expressed ire at upcoming joint military exercises between South Korea and the US, which are to take place in August. Kim warned South Korea that the exercises were a “suicidal act” and that the South Korean president should not to make the “mistake of ignoring the warning from Pyongyang,” according to the Foreign Ministry statement.

After his first meeting with Kim in Singapore last June, Trump had announced that the US would discontinue “war games” on the Korean Peninsula. The US and South Korean military have conducted scaled-down versions of the exercises since.

The South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement Wednesday urging North Korea to stop the missile tests, saying the launches are not helping to ease tensions on the peninsula.