North Korea has reportedly test-fired a new tactical guided weapon designed to boost its nuclear fighting capability.
This came days after the country marked its biggest state anniversary without a military parade, which it typically uses to unveil provocative weapons systems.
The test is the 13th round of weapons launches by North Korea this year. There are concerns that Pyongyang may soon conduct a larger provocation such as a nuclear test in an effort to expand its weapons arsenal and increase pressure on its rivals amid stalled diplomacy.
The official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials observed the launch.
It said the weapon tested has “great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units, enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes and diversification of their firepower missions”.
KCNA did not elaborate, but the mention of “tactical nukes” suggested the weapon is probably capable of carrying a battlefield nuclear warhead that could hit strategic targets in South Korea, including US military installations. The report did not mention the time and place of the launch.
“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 US 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.”
Some observers speculated that the weapon tested might be a smaller, lighter version of North Korea’s nuclear-capable KN-23 missile that has a highly manoeuvrable and lower-trajectory flight aimed at defeating missile defence systems. Others said it could be a new missile that combines the technical characteristics of the KN-23 and another short-range ballistic missile called the KN-24.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said that it had detected two projectile launches from the North’s eastern coastal town of Hamhung on Saturday.
It said the projectiles flew about 110 kilometres at an apogee of 25km and at a maximum speed of Mach 4. It said South Korean and US intelligence authorities are analysing additional details of the launches. South Korea’s presidential office said officials had met twice this weekend to discuss the North Korean military activities.
North Korea started the year with many weapons tests, including its first flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017. South Korean and US officials said Pyongyang could soon launch additional provocations such as another ICBM test, a rocket launch to put a spy satellite into orbit or even a nuclear test explosion, which would be the seventh.
South Korea’s military said it had detected signs that North Korea was rebuilding tunnels at a nuclear testing ground it partially dismantled weeks before it entered now-dormant nuclear talks with the United States in 2018.
Sunday’s KCNA dispatch quoted Mr Kim as presenting unspecified tasks to build up North Korea’s nuclear combat forces and its defence capability after praising what he called successive progress in its efforts to reinforce the country’s war deterrence power.
The North’s recent testing activity involved the sophisticated weapons systems Mr Kim has vowed to introduce to cope with what he calls American hostility. Analysts say North Korea may perform more missile tests after the South Korean and US militaries begin their annual drills this week because North Korea views them as an invasion rehearsal.
“North Korea has a domestic imperative to make and perfect weapons ordered by Kim Jong-un last year regardless of what the US 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 Centre for a New American Security.
“One reason for the political timing could be to protest anticipated US-South Korea military drills.”
On Friday, Mr Kim attended a civilian parade in Pyongyang that marked the 110th birth anniversary of his state-founding grandfather, Kim Il-sung. It appeared the country passed its most important national holiday without a highly anticipated military parade to display its new weapons systems.
North Korea may still hold a military parade on the April 25 founding anniversary of its army. But if that anniversary passes without a military parade again, some experts say that might mean Mr Kim does not have new powerful missiles to show and that his next provocative step will probably be a nuclear test.