SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has test-fired a new type of tactical guided weapon designed to boost its nuclear fighting capability, state media reported Sunday, a day before its chief rivals the United States and South Korea begin annual drills that the North views as an invasion rehearsal.
This year’s 13th weapon test came amid fears that North Korea might soon launch an even greater provocation. That may include a nuclear test in an effort to expand the country’s arsenal and increase pressure on Washington and Seoul while denuclearization talks remain stalled.
The official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong Un observed what it called the weapon’s successful launch. A photo was released by the Korean Central News Agency showing Kim Jong Un beaming and shaking hands with military officers.
KCNA said the weapon tested has “great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the front-line long-range artillery units, enhancing the efficiency in the operation of (North Korea’s) tactical nukes and diversification of their firepower missions.”
KCNA didn’t elaborate, but its use of the words “tactical nukes” suggested the weapon is likely capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could hit strategic targets in South Korea, including U.S. military installations. The KCNA dispatch didn’t say when and where the launch occurred.
“North Korea is trying to deploy not only long-range nuclear missiles aimed at American cities but also tactical nuclear weapons to threaten Seoul and U.S. bases in Asia,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Pyongyang’s purposes likely exceed deterrence and regime survival. Like Russia employs the fear it could use tactical nukes, North Korea may want such weapons for political coercion, battlefield escalation and limiting the willingness of other countries to intervene in a conflict,” he said.
Some experts suggested the North Korean weapons shown in photographs might represent a lighter and smaller version of their nuclear-capable KN-23 ballistic missile. This weapon has an extremely maneuverable flight that is designed to defeat missile defense system. Other observers suggested that it could combine the technical characteristics and capabilities of both the KN-23 as well as another ballistic short-range missile, the KN-24.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it had detected two launches from the North’s eastern coastal town of Hamhung early Saturday evening.
According to the South Korean presidential office, missiles traveled approximately 110 km (68 miles), at an altitude 25 kilometers (16 miles), and reached Mach 4. South Korea’s presidential office said officials have met twice this weekend to discuss the North Korean military activities.
South Korea’s military said later Sunday that its nine-day springtime drills with the United States will start on Monday. It said the allies decided to hold computer-simulated command post exercises that don’t involve field training after reviewing factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and the allies’ combined defense readiness.
These exercises may increase animosity on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea previously responded to them with weapons testing and fiery rhetoric.
North Korea started the year off with several weapons testing, including its first test flight of an intercontinental-capable ballistic missile capable reaching America’s homeland in 2017. South Korea has recently stated that it detected signs of North Korea rebuilding undergrounds at the nuclear test ground it had partially demolished weeks ago before entering now-dormant talks with America in 2018.
Analyst Cheong Seong Chang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute said that a North Korean possible nuclear attack would require a strategic nuclear warhead. He forecast that North Korea would attempt to launch a strategic nuclear warhead from the weapon it tested this weekend, and then deploy these nuclear missiles at the South Korean border.
“North Korea has a domestic imperative to make and perfect weapons ordered by Kim Jong Un last year regardless of what the U.S. does or doesn’t do. The test also tells his people that their country is strong despite their apparent economic difficulties,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at Washington’s Center for a New American Security. “One reason for the political timing could be to protest anticipated U.S.-South Korea military drills.”
Kim was present at a huge civilian parade that took place in Pyongyang on Friday to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and state-founding grandfather. The country seemed to have passed the most significant national holiday, without having to host a military parade that would showcase its latest weapons systems.
Kim may still hold a military parade on the April 25 founding anniversary of North Korea’s army. But if that anniversary goes without a military parade again, some experts say that might mean Kim doesn’t have new powerful missiles to display and that his next provocative step will likely be a nuclear test.
Kim Tong-hyung (Associated Press) contributed to the report.
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