In its first public display of military might since nuclear talks with the United States collapsed in February, North Korea has test-fired a new “tactical guided weapon,” state media reported.
The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, presided over the testing of the unidentified weapon Wednesday and said it would significantly increase the nation’s “combat power,” according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The report said the weapon was capable of carrying a “powerful warhead” but did not release photos or provide further details.
Analysts said that it did not appear North Korea had tested a ballistic missile, which would have been detected by early warning systems, and that the test was probably unrelated to its nuclear program.
They said the test was probably a calculated move by North Korea to nudge the U.S. toward restarting nuclear talks that broke down at a summit in Hanoi. The Trump administration has said it is only interested in going back to the table if North Korea is willing to give up its entire nuclear arsenal.
“This seems to be a very calibrated and rational signaling attempt,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear proliferation expert and political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Kim Jong Un is trying to remind both the U.S. and South Korea what the cost of walking away from diplomacy might be…. He’s loaded his gun, but he hasn’t fired.”
After testing a string of increasingly powerful nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in 2016 and 2017, Kim declared a moratorium on such tests last April saying North Korea had completed its weapons program.
This week’s test stopped short of a return to that level of provocation but did appear to be a reminder that North Korea continues to build up its conventional weapons capabilities.
Yang Uk, director of the WMD center at the Seoul-based think tank Korea Defense & Security Forum, said the wording of the announcement appeared to be carefully designed not to run afoul of United Nations sanctions on its missile testing.
“It’s an expression of displeasure at a level where it doesn’t completely upend the playing field,” he said.
Narang said the testing may be designed to boost morale in North Korea’s armed forces and bolster Kim politically at home after his empty-handed return from Hanoi. The ambiguity in what exactly was tested may fuel alarm when it comes to the U.S. and South Korea, he said.
“There is enough ambiguity here that without knowing what exactly the system is, speculation can run rampant," he said. “You can have all sorts of wild theories.”