North Korean leader Kim Jong Un again oversaw the test-firing of a “newly developed” weapon, state-run media said Sunday, throwing up yet another obstacle to long-stalled denuclearization talks with the United States.
The official Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch that Kim had guided the successful test of a “super-large multiple rocket launcher” a day earlier.
The test, which Japan and South Korea said was of two apparent ballistic missiles — a violation of U.N. resolutions — was the latest display of firepower by the nuclear-armed North.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the two missiles flew some 350 km and 400 km, respectively, while the South Korean military said the weapons flew about 380 km.
Saturday’s weapons test was Pyongyang’s seventh round of such launches since July 25.
In the KCNA report, Kim highlighted the need to “continue to step up the development of Korean-style strategic and tactical weapons for resolutely frustrating the ever-mounting military threats and pressure offensive of the hostile forces.”
Pyongyang regularly refers to Washington and Seoul — who last week wrapped up joint military drills — as “hostile forces.” Those exercises have angered the North, which calls them a rehearsal for invasion. Seoul and Washington and Seoul characterize the exercises, which have been scaled down from previous years, as purely defensive.
Photos released by KCNA also showed that the launch was also watched by the North Korean leader’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, herself a high-ranking figure in the regime. Her attendance stoked some speculation of how the line of succession in the Kim dynasty may work in the event of Kim Jong Un’s death.
“We may be getting the first hints of how military authority might devolve in the case of Kim’s death,” Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists wrote on Twitter. “Inconclusive at this point, but would be interesting especially if little sister showed up at any nuclear system inspections/launches.”
The recent spate of weapons tests have been widely seen as an attempt by the North to increase its leverage ahead of the resumption of the nuclear talks with the United States.
However, while the those tests have stoked concern in Seoul and Tokyo, U.S. President Donald Trump has continued to downplay the launches, giving the North more room to intensify its testing activity and advance its short-range weaponry, experts say.
Trump said recently that Kim had promised him in a “beautiful letter” that “this testing would stop” when the joint military exercises with South Korea wrapped up. Those drills ended Tuesday.
Asked if Kim had violated his trust by firing more missiles despite his promise, the president denied this was the case.
“No, I don’t think so,” he said ahead of his departure for the Group of Seven summit. “He likes testing missiles.”
The North Korean tests also came on the heels of South Korea’s decision to scrap its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan amid an increasingly acrimonious spat between the neighbors over trade and history issues.
Saturday’s launches were likely to test the two countries’ willingness and ability to continue sharing information in a timely manner. However, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs said it would share intelligence on the launches with Japan upon Tokyo’s request.
The intelligence-sharing pact is due to expire in November.
Japanese defense chief Takeshi Iwaya said the timing of the launch was unlikely to have been coincidental.
“As North Korea closely monitors regional affairs, I believe the country took advantage of the situation,” he said.
Saturday’s missile tests also came a day after North Korea’s foreign minister warned in a rare statement that the U.S. that it was “ready for dialogue or confrontation,” and vowed to remain “America’s biggest threat” for a long time to come.
Trump and Kim have met three times since last year to discuss ways to resolve a crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but progress has been scant on Washington’s aim of getting the country to relinquish its arsenal.
Talks have been stalled since Trump’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, where he met with Kim, in late June. Trump said at the time that nuclear negotiations would resume in July, but the talks have yet to happen.
The North has fired a spate of short-range missiles in recent weeks, including weapons designed to penetrate defenses. Those weapons were solid-fueled, had longer ranges, lower apogees and faster maximum speeds than previously seen, and were fired from transporter erector launchers (TELs). Experts say those types of mobile short-range ballistic missile systems would expand the North’s ability to strike targets throughout South Korea, including U.S. bases there, and possibly even put Japan within striking distance.
Iwaya has called the missiles a “grave threat” to Japan, and U.S. national security adviser John Bolton has said that one of the weapons tested, a missile known as the KN-23, “could probably hit all of South Korea and parts of Japan.”