SEOUL (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, WASHINGTON POST) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the testing of a new type of tactical guided weapon on Wednesday, state media Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Thursday (April 18), in what experts said was a show of defiance.
Further adding pressure on Washington and South Korea, KCNA said hours later that North Korea no longer wants US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo involved in nuclear talks, calling for someone who “is more careful and mature in communicating”.
KCNA, quoting Kwon Jong Gun, a senior official at the North’s foreign ministry, that “no one can predict” the situation on the Korean peninsula if the United States does not abandon the “root cause” that compelled Pyongyang to develop its nuclear programme, without elaborating.
The test is North Korea's first public weapons demonstration since the second United States-North Korea summit in Hanoi ended with no agreement in February. Sanctions against the North over its nuclear and missiles programmes remain in place.
KCNA did not describe exactly what the weapon is, including whether it was a missile or another type of weapon, but "tactical" implies a short-range weapon, as opposed to the long-range ballistic missiles that have been seen as a threat to the US.
Nevertheless, the missile has a "peculiar mode of guiding flight" and "a powerful warhead," KCNA said.
Mr Kim said "the completion of the development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power" of the North Korean army, according to KCNA.
Experts said the action was a calibrated sign of defiance by Kim following a stalemate in the denuclearization talks and a reminder that his country was continuing to develop its conventional weapons program.
Lee Jong-Seok, a former South Korean unification minister who is now at the Sejong Institute, said the latest announcement sent a message to Washington but did not cross the line.
“What matters in negotiations between North Korea and the US is strategic, not tactical, weapons,” he said.
“A test of tactical weapons does not constitute a full-on provocation, but North Korea is clearly sending a defiant message to the United States. Kim Jong Un does not intend to walk out of negotiations but shows that he can ‘seek a new way’ in the worst case.”
Mr Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the description that the test was “conducted in various modes of firing at different targets” likely meant that it could be launched from the ground, sea and air.
“It’s highly likely that it’s a short-range cruise missile that can be transformed into a surface, an air-to-surface, an air-to-ship, a ship-to-ship, as well as a surface-to-surface cruise missile,” he said.
Other analysts, including Shin Jong-woo of the Seoul-based Korea Defense Security Forum, said it could be a ground-to-ground precision-guided weapon similar to Israel’s Spike anti-tank guided missile that South Korea adopted in the early 2000s.
Mr Kim Jong Un also oversaw the test of an unidentified tactical weapon last November that could protect North Korea like a “steel wall”, according to state media. It was not clear whether it was the same weapon tested this week.
Experts said in November it was part of Mr Kim’s initiative to shift the mainstay of the North’s conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.
Last year, Mr Kim had said North Korea will stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), because Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities had been "verified".
“This does serve as a useful reminder of one critical fact: Chairman Kim Jong Un never promised to stop testing all weapons in his military arsenal, just nuclear weapons and ICBMs that have the potential to hit the US homeland,” said Mr Harry Kazianis of the Washington-based Centre for the National Interest.
A US official said that, according initial information, US Northern Command and Strategic Command did not detect a missile launch from North Korea. Further checks were underway, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A White House official said: “We are aware of the report and have no further comment.”
Spokesman Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said the Pentagon was also aware of the report. There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the US State Department.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House declined to comment, referring questions to the defence ministry. The ministry said it was analysing the nature of the weapon that was tested and North Korea’s intentions.
Mr Kim’s visit to the tactical weapon testing site came after he visited the North Korean Air and Anti-aircraft Force on Tuesday, according to KCNA, where he inspected a flight drill and expressed “great satisfaction” at their combat readiness.
Kyungnam University’s Kim Dong-yub said the latest test appeared to be a message to the US that North Korea would not bow to sanctions and go its own way.
“That’s part of it, but it’s also an internal message to the North Korean people and to the military” to instil trust in their own security by reinforcing conventional weapons, Mr Kim Dong-yub said.
Meanwhile, satellite images from last week show movement at North Korea's main nuclear site that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the US said on Tuesday.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in a Bloomberg News interview on Wednesday that the US needs to see “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons”, before a third summit between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim Jong Un.
Separately, North Korea’s propaganda outlets on Thursday criticised the South Korean government for conducting military exercises with the United States, which it called “provocative actions” that destroy peace on the Korean peninsula.
The state-run online publication Uriminzokkiri denounced Seoul for lacking willingness to implement the military agreement signed by the two Koreas last year, as the South Korean military carried out a landing drill near Pohang, North Gyeongsang Province, on April 3 and another exercise in March that involved US Marines from the Pacific Command.
Such military drills stir up “grave concern and anger” and are actions that run counter to the people’s wish for reunification, the website said.“Relation improvement is never compatible with military threat,” it said.