North Korea announced Saturday that it has conducted “another crucial test” at its Sohae long-range rocket site, claiming that the move will bolster its “reliable strategic nuclear deterrent.”
The move comes amid growing speculation that Pyongyang is poised for a major provocation amid stalled nuclear talks with the U.S.
“The research successes being registered by us in defense science one after another recently will be applied to further bolstering up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a short dispatch.
It said that the test had been conducted at the North’s “Sohae Satellite Launching Ground from 22:41 to 22:48” on Friday. It was not immediately clear why the report detailed the duration of the test.
The vague but ominous announcement — the second claim of a test at the same site in a week — comes ahead of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s year-end deadline for the United States to drop its insistence on unilateral denuclearization.
Kim warned in April that Pyongyang could take a “new path” amid the stalled talks. Top U.S. officials, however, have brushed off the deadline as “artificial.”
South Korea’s defense chief said Tuesday that the first test had been of a rocket engine.
Earlier this month, a senior North Korean official threatened earlier to deliver a “Christmas gift” to the United States, a remark that stirred concern that Pyongyang planned to escalate its confrontation with Washington.
Some analysts believe this escalation could come in the form of a satellite launch or test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), possibly over Japan.
Kim has demanded that the United States ease crushing unilateral and U.N. sanctions in exchange for some progress on the denuclearization issue. The U.S., however, has insisted that the North first relinquish its nuclear arsenal.
A return to ICBM launches or nuclear tests could send U.S.-North Korea ties back to where they were in 2017, when tensions surged and analysts worried about a military conflict. It would also undermine what Trump considers to be one of his key foreign policy achievements as he faces impeachment proceedings and as his re-election campaign heats up.
As part of a possible push to salvage talks by reaching out to North Korean officials ahead of the deadline, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun will visit Seoul and Tokyo for three days starting Sunday to discuss the nuclear issue.
It is unclear if he will reach out to North Korean officials while in the South.