North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has inspected a newly developed “ultramodern tactical weapon”, state media said yesterday without specifying what kind of weapon was tested.
North Korea has suspended nuclear and missile tests as it endeavours to improve relations with the outside world, and there was no indication this weapon was nuclear-related or a missile.
The US State Department said it remains confident that promises made by Mr Kim at his summit meeting with President Trump in Singapore in June would be fulfilled.
In a positive sign, North Korea announced later that it would deport a US citizen who had been detained since October after being accused of entering the country illegally from China at the behest of the CIA.
However, the announcement about the new weapon test marked Mr Kim’s first high-profile visit to a military site since the June summit, and the first announcement of any weapons test this year.
It comes as Washington’s diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programme appear to have stalled.
Mr Kim announced earlier this year that he is focused on economic rather than military development, and his inspection tours have reflected this, until now.
North Korean state media said the test, which took place at the Academy of National Defence Science, was successful and that Mr Kim could not suppress his “passionate joy”.
“This result today is a justification of the party’s policy focused on defence science and technology, another display of our rapidly growing defence capabilities to the whole region, and a groundbreaking change in strengthening our military’s combat capabilities,” Mr Kim said.
Experts say North Korea has been growing increasingly frustrated with the United States over Washington’s insistence that sanctions would be lifted only at the end of a long process of denuclearisation.
Earlier this month, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned that the country could return to the path of “pyongjin” – the simultaneous development of nuclear weapons and economic development – if sanctions are not lifted.
State media has also expressed anger in recent days over the resumption of small-scale joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea.
Yesterday’s announcement was not framed in those terms but Shin Beom-chul, research fellow at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said it still “reads as a strategic move with deliberate political intention”.
It was an example of the North’s “coercive diplomacy”.
“Pyongyang is putting pressure on Seoul and Washington for sanctions relief that they’ve been asking for,” he said. “Kim Jong-un is signalling that if such demand is not accommodated, Pyongyang can switch back to pursuit of nuclear development, as put forward in state media outlets recently.”
But Lee Jong-seok, a former South Korean unification minister now working at the Sejong Institute, a think-tank, said Mr Kim, as commander of his country’s armed forces, can carry out regular inspections of the country’s military facilities.
“That inspection does not necessarily read as deviation from any regular guidance activity that a country’s military commander would do,” he said.
“The prime targets of ongoing disarmament talks are ICBMs and nuclear arms. Overreacting to activities outside that realm does not help achieve the ultimate end-goal of denuclearisation.”
Mr Kim said the weapons system tested was one that especially interested his father, Kim Jong-il, who led its development personally before he died in 2011.
The US State Department downplayed the news.
“We remain confident that the promises made by President Trump and Chairman Kim will be fulfilled,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the official Korean Central News Agency said US citizen Bruce Byron Lawrence would be deported from the country after having been detained on October 16 last.
KCNA said Mr Lawrence told his captors he had illegally entered the country “under the manipulation of the CIA”.
A man by the same name was deported from South Korea in November 2017 after attempting to cross into North Korea.
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