Asia Pacific

With latest weapons tests, North Korea's Kim lives up to 'rocket man' nickname

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is living up to his “rocket man” nickname, with state-run media on Wednesday saying that the previous day’s weapons test had been yet another of a “super-large multiple rocket launcher.”

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a report that Kim had provided “field guidance” for the latest test — the North’s eighth volley since late July and its 18th and 19th weapons tests this year. The report said the weapons test had been intended to measure “the time of combat deployment” for the weapon, suggesting the ramped-up pace of testing this year had not been mere “provocations,” as some observers have claimed, but rather part of training and operationalizing systems that can be fielded soon.

Experts have said the diversity in launch sites of recent tests — Tuesday’s took place in the country’s west, with the rockets overflying its territory — also indicated the North was refining personnel and deployment readiness.

“The Supreme Leader said that the weapon system of super-large multiple rocket launcher has been finally verified in terms of combat operation, the characteristics of trajectory, accuracy and precise homing functions, adding that what remains to be done is running fire test which is most vivid character in terms of the power of multiple rocket launcher,” KCNA said.

The “running fire test” suggested that a so-called shoot-and-scoot operational test may be in the cards. Such a test, which could involve the transporter erector (TEL) launcher seen in accompanying photos, would improve the survivability of the weapon and confound U.S. and South Korean military planners.

“North Korea knows the ROK-U.S. alliance plans to rapidly respond with counterbattery fire; if they can shoot and move a 600 mm MRL-capable TEL quickly, that complicates counterbattery planning and improves launcher lifespans in a conflict,” Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote on Twitter.

But while the KCNA report said “two rounds of test-fire took place” — a claim in line with the South Korean military’s assessment — some analysts questioned this assertion, with photos accompanying the report suggesting a third missile may have also been launched.

South Korea’s military said Tuesday that two “short-range” projectiles flew about 330 km across the peninsula from near Gaechon, South Pyongan province, reaching a maximum altitude of around 50 km to 60 km.

The test came just hours after the North offered to resume nuclear talks with the United States.

Pyongyang said Tuesday before the launch that it was willing to restart nuclear talks with the U.S. later this month, but warned that chances of a deal could end unless Washington takes a fresh approach.

In a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui said Pyongyang was willing to have “comprehensive discussions” with the United States in late September at a time and place to be agreed to between both sides.

Her offer comes after Kim agreed in a June 30 meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump to reopen working-level talks stalled since their failed February summit in Hanoi.

The latest test also came a day ahead of a key Cabinet reshuffle in Japan.

Japan’s defense chief blasted the tests as a “very serious issue,” saying Tokyo was “making every effort to stay vigilant” of the North Korean nuclear threat, highlighting that Pyongyang is banned from the use of all ballistic missile technology under United Nations sanctions resolutions.

Although Trump has given a pass to the North on its shorter-range weapons tests despite a U.N. ban, Tokyo has been outspoken in its condemnation of the launches. It believes Pyongyang is using the space created by Trump’s de facto blessing to develop powerful new weapons systems, including shorter-range ballistic missiles capable of striking parts of Japan.

Highlighting the North’s focus on these types of weapons systems, Wednesday’s KCNA report also cited Kim as saying that he expected the new weapon to be put into mass-production.

“He indicated immediate tasks and ways for putting the production of our style tactical guided weapons including super-large multiple rocket launcher on the highest level,” the report said of Kim.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said there were two views about the spate of recent launches.

“Optimists will see North Korea’s latest projectile tests as what Pyongyang needed to get out of the way to satisfy military hard-liners and weapons scientists before working-level talks resume,” Easley said.

However, he added, “pessimists will argue that the Kim regime is increasing pressure for concessions on sanctions, and is trying to ‘decouple’ Washington from its allies in Seoul and Tokyo by seeking the Trump administration’s de facto acceptance of North Korea’s enhanced missile capabilities.”

Photos released by the North also showed Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, had attended the test, in a sign her role in military affairs could be growing. This was at least the second time in recent weeks that she had joined her brother for a launch. She was also seen attending an Aug. 24 test.

The appearance of Kim Yo Jong, herself a high-ranking figure in the regime, has stoked some speculation of how the line of succession in the Kim dynasty may work in the event of Kim Jong Un’s death.