North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed the successful test of a “newly developed hi-tech tactical” weapon though it was unclear what sort of armament it was.
The viewing on Friday didn’t appear to be a nuclear or missile-related test, a string of which last year had many fearing war before the North turned to engagement and diplomacy early this year.
Still, any mention of weapons testing could influence the direction of stalled diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang that’s meant to rid the North of its nuclear weapons.
The North said the test took place at the Academy of National Defence Science and Kim couldn’t suppress his “passionate joy” at its success.
“Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was so excited to say that another great work was done by the defence scientists and munitions industrial workers to increase the defence capability of the country,” the Korean Central News Agency reported.
The weapon was conceived by Kim’s deceased father and the new leader “missed Kim Jong Il very much while seeing the great success of its test”, state-run KCNA said.
It was Kim’s first field visit to a testing site since his unprecedented summit with US President Donald Trump in June, when the two leaders agreed to work towards denuclearisation and peace on the Korean Peninsula, and to establish new relations between the United States and North Korea.
Any testing of new weapons is likely to raise tensions with Washington, which has said there will be no easing of international sanctions until North Korea takes more concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
The United States remains confident that denuclearisation “promises” will be fulfilled, a State Department spokesperson said.
“At the Singapore Summit, President Trump and Chairman Kim made a number of commitments regarding final, fully verified denuclearisation and creating a brighter future for North Korea,” the US statement said.
“We are talking with the North Koreans about implementing all of those commitments. The president has made clear that if Kim Jong Un denuclearises, there is a bright future for North Korea.”
Friday’s announcement was more likely aimed at reassuring the North Korean military rather than trying to torpedo diplomatic talks, said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies.
“North Korea is trying to show its soldiers that they are becoming hi-tech and keeping a certain level of military capability, while trying to eliminate dissatisfaction and worries inside its military,” Choi said.
The North has reportedly expressed anger in recent days at South Korea’s resumption of small-scale military drills with the United States. But Friday’s report didn’t appear to focus on North Korean claims of US and South Korean hostility – as it did when announcing previous weapons tests.
The test may have been a response to the joint military manoeuvres, which Pyongyang said violated recent pacts to halt to “all hostile acts”, said Yang Uk, an analyst at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.
Last year’s weapons tests, many experts believe, put the North on the brink of a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that can target anywhere in the mainland United States.
Diplomacy has stalled since the June summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore, with Washington pushing for more action on nuclear disarmament and the North insisting the US first approve a peace declaration formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
Professor Yang Moo-jin, from the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, South Korea, said Friday’s test was “a signal to the US sent ahead of the high-level talks that its own patience is also wearing thin”.