Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

North Korea tests new weapon with 'powerful warhead' and demands Pompeo's removal from nuke talks

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea has demanded that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo be removed as Washington’s top negotiator with Pyongyang, just hours after announcing the test-firing of a “new-type tactical guided weapon,” the country’s state-run media said Thursday.

Both moves appeared to be an apparent bid by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to bring deadlocked nuclear talks with the U.S. back to the top of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda.

The North called for replacing Pompeo with a “more careful and mature” negotiator, accusing the top U.S. diplomat of failing to understand Pyongyang’s position and causing the denuclearization talks to become “entangled.”

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency quoted a senior Foreign Ministry official as making the demand, claiming that whenever Pompeo “pokes his nose in, talks between the two countries go wrong without any results even from the point close to success.”

“I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled,” Kwon Jong Gun, director general of the ministry’s American affairs department, told KCNA.

“Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the U.S., I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but [another] person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us,” he added.

Kwon, whom KCNA said was responding to a question from one of the outlet’s reporters, said Kim had made clear that the U.S. attitude has to change and that Pompeo was standing in the way of a resumption of talks.

“We cannot be aware of Pompeo’s ulterior motive behind his self-indulgence in reckless remarks; whether he is indeed unable to understand words properly or just pretending on purpose.

“The U.S. cannot move us one iota by its current way of thinking. In his previous visits to Pyongyang, Pompeo was granted audiences with our Chairman of the State Affairs Commission for several times and pleaded for … denuclearization,” Kwon said.

“However, after sitting the other way round, he spouted reckless remarks hurting the dignity of our supreme leadership at Congress hearings last week to unveil his mean character by himself, thus stunning the reasonable people,” he added.

In testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week, Pompeo, who flew to Pyongyang four times last year, was asked if he would agree with the characterisation of Kim as a “tyrant.”

“Sure. I’m sure I’ve said that,” Pompeo replied.

North Korea views anything seen as a personal attack on Kim, who is effectively viewed as a godlike figure in his country, as the most serious of affronts.

The remarks by Kwon came just hours after the North said Kim had observed the firing, by the Academy of Defense Science, of the unspecified weapon on Wednesday.

A report earlier in the day by KCNA had touted the weapon’s “peculiar mode of guiding flight” and its ability to carry a “powerful warhead,” saying those capabilities “were perfectly verified at the test-fire conducted in various modes of firing at different targets.”

Kim was quoted as saying that “the development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army.”

While it was not immediately clear what type of weapon had been tested, media reports quoting anonymous U.S. officials said it was likely a “short-range” test of a small, guided weapon, not a ballistic missile.

The report also used the word “tactical,” which suggests the possibility of an artillery test, and mentioned that Pak Jong Chon — the head of the Korean People’s Army Artillery Command, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch website — also attended the test.

More importantly, observers said it was unlikely to be a banned ballistic missile test, because that would throw into doubt long-sought talks with the U.S. Such a test would be seen as far more provocative than one involving shorter-range missiles or other weapons.

“This seems to be a calculated attempt to raise tensions and put pressure on the United States without tanking the diplomatic process” in the wake of the failed Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi in February, said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues.

The Hanoi talks collapsed after Trump proposed a “big deal” in which sanctions on North Korea would be lifted if it handed over all of its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States. He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim, which included an offer to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear site.

In the wake of the failed talks, Kim has said he is open to a third summit with Trump, laying down an end-of-the-year deadline at a key ruling party meeting last week “for a bold decision from the U.S.” on a nuclear agreement.

In the meantime, Kim could be looking for other means to help cushion the burden of crushing sanctions, including from Russia.

Speculation has surged in recent days that Kim could hold his first summit meeting with President Vladimir Putin, with the Russian newspaper Izvestia citing a Foreign Ministry source as saying preparations were underway for a summit next week in the Far East city of Vladivostok, while Japan’s Fuji News Network showed footage of Kim’s protocol chief visiting the city on Wednesday.

But the weapons test could also be intended to send a message to hard-liners within the North Korean regime itself.

“Tests like these are designed to serve several purposes,” said Jean Lee, a Korea expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “Kim wants to show the hard-liners that defense remains a priority. But he does also want to send a message to Washington that his patience is limited, and remind them that they are continuing to maintain and develop illicit weapons.”

Still, Lee noted, “Any test of a device designed to carry a ‘powerful warhead’ is an act of defiance since U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from developing missiles and nuclear weapons.”

Wednesday’s event was also the first known time Kim had observed the testing of a newly developed weapon system since last November, when state-run media said he oversaw the successful test of an unspecified “newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon.”

North Korea has not test-fired a ballistic missile since November 2017, when it tested its Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, which some experts believe is capable of striking much, if not all, of the continental United States.

Trump has repeatedly touted the North’s self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and longer-range missile tests as progress his administration has made in dealing with Pyongyang.

And in an apparently coordinated response by his administration, both the Pentagon and State Department issued the same curt statement when asked for comment by The Japan Times: “We are aware of the report, and have no further comment.”

But despite Trump’s claims of progress, a slew of recent reports have indicated the North continues work unabated on its nuclear program, including at its Yongbyon facilities and at a key missile research center and long-range rocket site.

Lee, after Wednesday’s test-firing, said “it will be interesting to see how President Trump reacts … having based so much of his ‘success’ on North Korea on the lack of testing since late 2017.”

However, she said that Kim could have given Trump an implicit way around the testing issue, while also bringing it back to the front of his mind.

“Trump may seize on the lack of clarity on what kind of weapon North Korea tested, and claim that by ‘testing’ he meant ‘no ICBMs’ or long-range missiles,” Lee said. “In a sense, Kim has given him this out by not testing a missile specifically designed to strike the mainland United States.”

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