SEOUL/WASHINGTON • North Korea said yesterday that its leader Kim Jong Un attended the testing of a new type of large-calibre, multiple-launch, guided rocket system that could expand the North's ability to strike South Korea and United States forces stationed there.
North Korea said the test-firing of its newly developed rocket system took place on Wednesday, the same day South Korea said the North launched two short-range ballistic missiles that flew 250km off its east coast.
It was unclear whether South Korea failed to distinguish large-calibre rockets from ballistic missiles or if the rockets were launched as part of a weapons test that also included ballistic missiles.
After watching the test-firing of the newly developed rocket system, Mr Kim said "it would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon", the North's official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday.
Meanwhile, joint military exercises between the US and South Korea will go ahead, a Pentagon official said on Wednesday, after the missile tests and calls for the drills' cancellation by North Korea.
The affirmation of the annual joint exercises comes amid a series of missile launches by the North, one of which it called a "solemn warning to the South Korean warmongers" over the planned drills.
But despite Pyongyang's warning that the exercises could also derail further talks with Washington in the long-running diplomatic process over its nuclear and missile programmes, the US official said there is "no adjustment or change in plans that we're aware of".
"We have to do two things: We have to give the diplomats appropriate space for their diplomacy and help create an environment that's conducive to the talks when they resume - which we expect," the official said on condition of anonymity.
The US stations nearly 30,000 troops in the South to defend it from its neighbour, which invaded in 1950.
The annual exercises between the US and South Korea have repeatedly raised the ire of the North, which sees them as a rehearsal for an invasion of its territory. The North said the new rocket system was developed as part of the country's efforts to modernise its military.
Although the North's short-range multiple rocket launchers do not represent the kind of threat that its nuclear ballistic missiles do, South Korean and US military planners have long feared them because of their ability to rain down thousands of rockets on Seoul, the South's capital city with 10 million people, in the first several minutes of a war.
In recent years, North Korea has tested and deployed a 300mm multiple-rocket launch system believed to have a range long enough to strike major South Korean and US military bases, including the newly built US military hub in Pyeongtaek, 64km south of Seoul.
North Korea has also been adding a guiding function to its large-calibre rockets to increase their ability to hit targets with precision, South Korean defence officials said.
Yesterday, South Korea also said it was investigating a North Korean man to determine if he was a defector. The man was found crossing a river that forms part of the western inter-Korea border shortly before midnight on Wednesday.
Despite three summit meetings between Mr Kim and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in last year, inter-Korea relations have rapidly soured this year.
The missiles fired last week travelled much farther - one of them going nearly 700km - than Wednesday's, and also reached a higher altitude, 50km compared with 30km.
But US President Donald Trump said he was not upset by the North's test because it involved "short-range missiles and very standard missiles".
United Nations Security Council resolutions ban the North from ballistic missile launches.
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE