North Korea said Thursday that it had test-fired a new type of 'tactical guided weapon,' its first such test in nearly half a year, and a possible sign of its displeasure with deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States.
The test, which didn't appear to be of a banned mid- or long-range ballistic missile that could scuttle negotiations, allows Pyongyang to show its people it is pushing ahead with weapons development while also reassuring domestic military officials worried that diplomacy with Washington signals weakness.
The North's leader, Kim Jong Un, observed the unspecified weapon being fired Wednesday by the Academy of Defense Science, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency said. Kim was reported to have said 'the development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People's Army.'
The Associated Press could not independently verify North Korea's claim, and it wasn't immediately clear what had been tested. A ballistic missile test would jeopardise the diplomatic talks meant to provide the North with concessions in return for disarmament. A South Korean analyst said that details in the North's media report indicate it could have been a new type of cruise missile. Another possible clue: one of the lower level officials mentioned in the North's report on the test — Pak Jong Chon — is known as an artillery official.
The test comes during an apparent deadlock in nuclear disarmament talks after the failed summit in Hanoi between Kim and President Donald Trump earlier this year. Some in Seoul worry that the North will turn back to actions seen as provocative by outsiders as a way to force Washington to drop its hardline negotiating stance and grant the North's demand for a removal of crushing international sanctions. A string of increasingly powerful weapons tests in 2017 and Trump's response of 'fire and fury' had many fearing war before the North shifted to diplomacy.
The test came amid media reports in South Korean and Japan that Kim plans to visit Vladivostok next week for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Japan's Fuji Television Network on Wednesday showed Kim's de facto chief of staff, Kim Chang Son, visiting an area near Vladivostok's train station. Ahead of Kim Jong Un's two summits with Trump, Kim Chang Son visited Singapore and Vietnam in advance and handled logistical preparations.
Trump said last month that he 'would be very disappointed if I saw testing.'
As the diplomacy stalls, there have been fresh reports of new activity at a North Korean missile research center and long-range rocket site where Pyongyang is believed to build missiles targeting the US mainland. North Korean media said Wednesday that Kim guided a flight drill of combat pilots from an air force and anti-aircraft unit tasked with defending the capital Pyongyang from an attack.
During a speech at his rubber-stamp parliament last week, Kim set the year's end as a deadline for Washington to offer mutually acceptable terms for an agreement to salvage diplomacy.
Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said North Korea's descriptions of the test show the weapon is possibly a newly developed cruise missile. The North's report said the 'tactical guided weapon' successfully tested in a 'peculiar mode of guiding flight' and demonstrated the ability to deliver a 'powerful warhead.'
The analyst said the test could also be intended as a message to the North Korean people and military of a commitment to maintaining a strong level of defence even as it continues talks with Washington over nukes.
Melissa Hanham, a non-proliferation expert and director of the Datayo Project at the One Earth Future Foundation, said the North Korean weapon could be anything from an anti-tank weapon to a cruise missile.
The North said Thursday that Kim Jong Un mounted an observation post to learn about and guide the test-fire of the weapon.
This is the first known time Kim has observed the testing of a newly developed weapon system since last November, when North Korean media said he watched the successful test of an unspecified 'newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon.' Some observers have been expecting North Korea to orchestrate 'low-level provocations,' like artillery or short-range missile tests, to register its anger over the way nuclear negotiations were going.
North Korean officials accompanying Kim at the test included Ri Pyong Chol and Kim Jong Sik, two senior officials from the North's Munitions Industry Department who have been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department for their activities related to the country's ballistic missile program, including the development of solid-fuel missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles potentially capable of striking the US mainland. The Pyongyang-based department is sanctioned both by the United States and the U.N. Security Council.
'Even if this is not a 'missile' test the way we strictly define it, these people and MID are all sanctioned entities for a reason,' Hanham said.
The analyst in Seoul, Kim Dong-yub, who is a former South Korean military official, said it wasn't yet clear whether the North conducted an advanced test of the same weapon Kim Jong Un observed in November or tested something different.
The White House said it was aware of the report and had no comment. The Pentagon also said it was aware but had no information to provide at this point. South Korea's presidential office said it has no immediate comment. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it is analysing the test but did not specifically say what the weapon appeared to be.
A US official familiar with monitoring operations said that neither US Strategic Command nor NORAD observed any weapons test. That rules out tests that go high into the atmosphere, such as a ballistic missile, but does not rule out tests at lower altitudes.
After the animosity of 2017, last year saw a stunning turn to diplomacy, culminating in the first-ever summit between Washington and Pyongyang in Singapore, and then the Hanoi talks this year. North Korea has suspended nuclear and long-range rocket tests, and the North and South Korean leaders have met three times. But there are growing worries that the progress could be killed by mismatched demands between Washington and Pyongyang over sanctions relief and disarmament.
Washington says it won't allow the North's desired sanctions relief until the nation commits to verifiably relinquishing his nuclear facilities, weapons and missiles. Kim has shown no signs that he's willing to give away an arsenal he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival.