SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has test-fired a “new-type tactical guided weapon,” its state media announced Thursday, in a possible attempt to register displeasure with currently deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States without causing those coveted negotiations to collapse.
The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, observed the firing by the Academy of Defense Science of the unspecified weapon on Wednesday, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said. Kim was reported to have said that “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 of the weapons test, and it wasn’t immediately clear what had been tested.
It is likely not, however, a banned ballistic missile test, which would jeopardize diplomatic talks meant to provide the North with concessions in return for disarmament. A South Korean analyst said that the North’s media report indicates it could have been a test of a new type of cruise missile. Another possible clue of what was fired: 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 as the two sides seem deadlocked after a failed nuclear disarmament summit in Hanoi between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year. Some in Seoul worry that the North will turn back to weapons testing — which it has largely halted since a series of launches in 2017 and Trump’s response of “fire and fury” had many fearing war — and other actions seen as provocative by outsiders as a way to force Washington to drop its current hardline negotiating stance and grant the North’s demand for a removal of crushing international sanctions.
There are also 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 U.S. mainland, and 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 Friday, 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 North said Thursday that Kim mounted an observation post to learn about the test-fire of the new-type tactical guided weapon and to guide the test-fire.
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 observed 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.
Analyst Kim Dong-yub, 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.
After the animosity of 2017, last year saw a stunning turn to diplomacy, culminating in the first-ever leaders’ meeting between Washington and Pyongyang in Singapore. North Korea has suspended nuclear and long-range rocket tests. But fears have since emerged 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.