North Korea tested “multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons,” state media confirmed Saturday, the first comments on a launch that has further raised military tensions.
Kim Jong Un personally “gave an order of firing” of the projectiles into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.
Pictures posted in North Korean state media show Kim peering through binoculars during the launch, then smiling as he points at a screen apparently showing an island target being destroyed.
Analysts say one of the weapons fired appears to be a newly developed short-range ballistic missile. If confirmed, it would be the first North Korean missile test in a year and a half.
“The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons,” KCNA reported.
The test is North Korea’s latest attempt to gradually increase pressure on and signal its frustration with the United States and South Korea, since the breakdown of nuclear talks.
Pyongyang’s statement did not contain any explicit threats or even mentions of the United States or South Korea. Seoul on Friday condemned the launch as needlessly provocative and a violation of an inter-Korean military agreement.
Missile or projectile?
There had been confusion about the exact type of weapons North Korea launched. South Korea’s defense ministry initially characterized the launch as a “short-range missile” test. Later statements referred to the weapons as “projectiles.”
“That’s no projectile,” Jeffrey Lewis, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said in a tweet. “That’s the new SRBM (short-range ballistic missile) that North Korea paraded in February.”
At least externally, the missile appears similar to the Iskandar, a short-range, ballistic missile developed by Russia, analysts say.
Under a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions, North Korea is banned from conducting ballistic missile launches. Seoul says the weapons traveled from 70-200 kilometers, which would be classified as a short-range test.
North Korea has not carried out a missile test since November 2017. The self-imposed moratorium has helped facilitate nuclear talks with U.S. President Donald Trump.
In Kim’s view, the moratorium, which was never formalized, does not cover short-range tests. But by launching multiple short-range projectiles, Kim may be attempting to test the limits of how Washington interprets that moratorium.
Last month, North Korea said it tested a “tactical guided weapon.” Commercial satellite images have also detected increased activity at some North Korean nuclear and satellite launch facilities in recent weeks.
Trump: Deal still possible
So far, Trump has played down the provocations. But he has also not signaled a change in his negotiating stance. Reacting to the latest test, Trump said he still believes a nuclear deal with North Korea is possible.
Kim, who wants the removal of international sanctions hurting his economy, has said he will give the United States until the end of the year to become more flexible in the nuclear talks. Trump says he will not relax sanctions until Kim agrees to completely abandon his nuclear program.
Trump and Kim have held two summits over the past year. At the first meeting, in Singapore, both men agreed to work “toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But U.S. officials later acknowledged the two sides never agreed on what that means.
At the second meeting in Vietnam, Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle a part of North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for major sanctions relief. Since that meeting, the two sides have struggled to even hold talks, U.S. officials say.
Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, will visit South Korea and Seoul later this week to help advance the talks.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose liberal government has prioritized engagement with the North, says he is willing to hold a fourth summit with Kim anytime, anywhere.
Last week, Japan’s conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said he is willing to meet with Kim “unconditionally and talk with him frankly with an open mind.”