Seoul, South Korea ( Associated Press) — North Korea has tested a new type of tactical guided weapon designed to boost its nuclear warhead capability, state media reported on Sunday by its main rivals the United States and South Korea. Reported a day before the start of the annual exercise. North sees it as an attack rehearsal.
This year’s 13th weapons test took place amid concerns that North Korea may soon conduct an even greater provocation. This could include a nuclear test in an effort to expand the country’s arsenal and increase pressure on Washington and Seoul, while denuclearization talks have stalled.
The official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong Un saw what it called a successful launch of the weapon. It released a picture in which a smiling Kim is seen clapping with military officers.
KCNA said the tested weapon is of “great importance in significantly improving the firepower of front-line long-range artillery units, increasing efficiency in (North Korea’s) tactical corner operations, and diversifying their firepower missions.”
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KCNA did not elaborate, but the use of the terms “tactical nukes” suggests that the weapon is capable of carrying nuclear warheads that could hit strategic targets in South Korea, including US military installations. The KCNA dispatch did not specify when and where the launch took place.
Professor Leif-Eric Easley of Iwa University in Seoul said, “North Korea is trying to deploy long-range nuclear missiles not only aimed at American cities, but to threaten American bases in Seoul and Asia.” It is also deploying strategic nuclear weapons.”
“Pyongyang’s objectives likely outweigh the existence of deterrence and regimes. Just as Russia uses fears that it might use strategic nuclear weapons, North Korea uses political pressure, escalation on the battlefield, and interference in the conflict.” wants to limit the will of other countries for such weapons,” he said.
Some observers said the weapon shown in North Korean photographs suggested it may be a smaller, lighter version of the nuclear-capable KN-23 missile, with highly maneuverable flight intended to defeat missile defense 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 in a statement that it had detected two launches early Saturday from the north eastern coastal city of Hamung.
It said the missiles flew at an altitude of about 110 kilometers (68 mi) at an altitude of 25 kilometers (16 mi) and a maximum speed of Mach 4. South Korea’s presidential office said officials met twice this weekend to discuss North Korean military activities.
South Korea’s military said later on Sunday that its nine-day springtime exercises with the United States would begin on Monday. It said the allies decided to conduct the computer-simulated command post exercise, which does not include field training, after reviewing factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and joint defense readiness of the allies.
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The exercise could further intensify hostilities on the Korean peninsula as North Korea has previously responded with its own weapons tests and fiery rhetoric.
North Korea has started this year with a series of weapons tests, including the first flight test since 2017 of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US homeland. South Korea recently said it has received indications that North Korea is rebuilding tunnels in a nuclear test. It partially dismantled it weeks before it entered into now-defunct nuclear talks with the United States in 2018.
Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at South Korea’s private Sejong Institute, said a possible nuclear test by North Korea would include a strategic nuclear weapon. He predicted that North Korea would pressure it to mount a tactical nuclear warhead on the weapon it tested later this week and would deploy such nuclear missiles near the border with South Korea.
“North Korea has a domestic imperative to manufacture and perfect the weapons ordered by Kim Jong Un last year, regardless of what the US does or does not do. The test also tells his people that his country is strong despite their apparent economic difficulties,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at the Washington Center for a New American Security. “One reason for the political timing may be to oppose the anticipated US-South Korea military exercise.”
On Friday, Kim took part in a massive civilian parade in Pyongyang, which marked the 110th birthday of her state-founding grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The country appears to have passed its most important national holiday without a highly anticipated military parade to showcase its new weapon systems.
Kim can still hold a military parade on April 25, the anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s military. But if that anniversary again goes without a military parade, some experts say it could mean Kim doesn’t have powerful new missiles to display and that his next provocative step will likely be a nuclear test.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.