North Korean 'tactical weapon' test seen as arms upgrade

SEOUL • North Korea's claim last week that it had tested an unidentified "ultramodern tactical weapon" highlighted its desire to upgrade its conventional arms and reassure its military, even as talks are under way to end its nuclear programme, analysts say.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un witnessed the test of a newly developed tactical weapon that could serve as a "steel wall", state media reported on Friday, without giving details of the weapon.

It was Mr Kim's first observation of a weapons test this year and could complicate already-stalled nuclear talks with the United States, although Washington and Seoul downplayed the development in an apparent effort not to derail negotiations.

Experts say the test was part of Mr Kim's initiative to shift the mainstay of the conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.

"This is sort of like the North Korean version of military reform," said Dr Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

"If we have to find an underlying message to the outside world, it's 'don't underestimate us, we are modernising too.'"

 
 

Experts say the test was part of Mr Kim's initiative to shift the mainstay of the conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.

Military expert Kim Dong-yub, who is with Kyungnam University's Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said by touting a modernised weapon, Mr Kim could seek to reassure hard-line military generals and the public in North Korea who may be worried about a nuclear-free future.

New advanced weapons might be even more crucial if the country were to abandon at least some of its nuclear arsenal.

Although heavily sanctioned Pyongyang is easily outspent in defence funding by Seoul and Washington, the North's forward-deployed troops, guns and multiple-launch artillery rocket systems (MLRS) pose a significant threat to the allies.

The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armoured vehicles, 810 fighter jets, 430 combatant vessels and 70 submarines, according to a 2016 assessment by the South's defence ministry.

The two Koreas agreed during their September summit in Pyongyang to significantly reduce military tensions along the border, and the North has begun deactivating artillery deployed along the skirmish-prone western shore, Seoul's defence ministry said.

But the pact did not include any removal of MLRS from forward-deployed areas, where some long-range guns and rocket launchers can still reach Seoul.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2018, with the headline 'N. Korean 'tactical weapon' test seen as arms upgrade'. Print Edition | Subscribe