North Korea said Saturday it had conducted "another crucial test" at a satellite launch and rocket engine facility to bolster its "reliable strategic nuclear deterrent."
The test comes just weeks ahead of the country’s self-imposed end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to provide more concessions in nuclear negotiations, and amid its threats to resume long-range missile or nuclear tests.
The Korean Central News Agency did not say what was tested Saturday and did not include photos. It did say the test occurred at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, though, where North Korea said a week earlier it conducted another "very important test" apparently of a rocket engine.
"The priceless data, experience and new technologies gained in the recent tests of defense science research will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon," Pak Jong Chon, a senior North Korean military official, was quoted as saying in KCNA. He said the tests are meant "for definitely and reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S."
Pak, the chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, said his forces are "fully ready to thoroughly carry out any decision" by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. "The U.S. and other hostile forces will spend the year-end in peace only when they hold off any words and deeds rattling us," Pak said.
North Korea has launched 13 rounds of short- or medium-range missiles since June. Some analysts predict it may soon launch a satellite into space using long-range missile technology.
Pyongyang is banned from any ballistic missile activity under United Nations resolutions but has in the past used what it called peaceful satellite launches as a way to test long-range missile technology without returning to overt military tensions.
North Korea’s description of the latest test - as having bolstered its "strategic nuclear deterrent" - suggests to many analysts, however, that Pyongyang may forgo the pretense of a satellite launch this time.
"The language pushes us back to an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] test in the new year, maybe as the leadoff hitter," said Vipin Narang, a nuclear specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Given the Korean Central News Agency’s wording, Narang says the latest test almost certainly involved an engine for a long-range missile, possibly an ICBM.
North Korea has promised an ominous "Christmas gift" to the United States, saying it is up to Washington to decide what kind of present it will receive.
Kim Jong Un has warned he may take a "new path" if the U.S. does not drop what he calls Washington’s "hostile policy" by the end of the year.
Last week, North Korea’s foreign ministry said Pyongyang had "decisively" made a "definite decision" on what to do, but didn’t say what the decision was.
"Kim Jong-un’s year-end deadline is an artificial one, so its expiration does not have to lead to escalation unless he wants it to," says Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
"North Korea does not have domestic audience costs like a democracy, nor does it have an international reputation for upholding commitments. But the Kim regime does face performance legitimacy pressures to achieve economic development. So there is a time dimension for the goal of achieving sanctions relief. Pyongyang wants to be immediately rewarded for what it considers good behavior over the past two years," Easley says.
North Korea may provide a hint later this month about its future direction during an important meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Kim’s New Year’s speech also will be closely watched for comments about the nuclear talks.
In what appears to be a final check-in to the region ahead of the North’s deadline, Steve Biegun, the top U.S. envoy on North Korea, is visiting South Korea and Japan next week.
Biegun and other U.S. officials have dismissed the North Korean deadline as arbitrary. U.S. President Donald Trump has all but completely ignored the deadline in his public comments.
Nuclear talks broke down in February when Trump walked away from a summit with Kim in Hanoi.
The two sides resumed working-level discussions in October in Stockholm, but North Korea walked away this time, complaining the U.S. had not made an appropriate offer.
The U.S. has since said it is ready to resume talks.
"We remain ready to take actions in parallel, and to simultaneously take concrete steps toward this agreement," said Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, last week. "But we cannot do this alone – North Korea must make this difficult but bold decision to work with us."
Trump and Kim have met three times since June 2018. At their first meeting, in Singapore, they agreed to work "toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." The two sides have not been able to agree on what that phrase means, though, or how to begin working toward it.