SEOUL — What does a new “tactical” weapon mean for the North Korean denuclearization process? Both the United States and the South Korean government downplayed the weapons test, but Adam Mount, a member of the Federation of American Scientists, disagreed.
Speaking to Reuters news agency, he said the test may serve as a warning to Washington.
“They’re trying to signal that they are willing to walk away from talks and restart weapons testing,” he said. “It is the most explicit in a series of escalating statements designed to send this message.”
The U.S. State Department suggested the test would not derail efforts to persuade North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons program.
“We remain confident that the promises made by President Trump and Chairman Kim will be fulfilled,” a spokesman for the U.S. State Department said.
Troy University lecturer in international relations Daniel Pinkston, also does not believe the test will have any direct impact on current talks and says it’s another example that “North Korea’s orientation policy objectives haven’t fundamentally changed.”
He adds that this “particular system is just another indication of the importance of military to military strength in North Korea.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said Friday the test shouldn’t be classified as a “provocation.”
In addition, an anonymous South Korean government official speaking to South Korea’s Yonhap News, said while the test should be watched carefully, it didn’t necessarily mean North Korea was willing to walk away from denuclearization talks.
A North Korean threat?
Seong Whun Cheon, Visiting Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, says he has concerns about Seoul’s assessment of the recent test, because a tactical weapon refers to a short-range device, “which means even if it’s not a threat to the United States, [it’s] a direct threat to our (South Korean) national security.”
Pyongyang has positioned a large assortment of conventional weapons within striking distance of the South Korea capital. The proximity of those weapons and their potential to inflict massive casualties should a country attempt to attack North Korea, has been a powerful deterrent to such actions.
Cheon adds that if Pyongyang and the United States were able to reach a deal that would allow North Korea to “continue to purchase either technical or medium-range missiles, including some nuclear capability, that is the worst nightmare that we can imagine at the moment.”
Pinkston says the latest test sends “a signal to South Korea on how North Korea is prepared to stand fast and be resolute in their relations with the South… and to the United States and others on the UN Security Council.”
Ultimately Cheon says, “We don’t see any significant changes, or revisions, in their conventional strategy.”
What weapon was tested?
North Korea’s state media said Friday, leader Kim Jong-un inspected a test of a newly developed high-tech weapon. The visit and announcement came as talks with the United States over Pyongyang’s denuclearization have stalled, even though Washington says a second summit with Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump is still being planned for early 2019.
In the English version of the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report, it said Kim visited “the Academy of Defense Science and supervised a newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon test.”
“The state-of-the-art weapon that has been long developed under the leadership of our party’s dynamic leadership has a meaning of completely safeguarding our territory and significantly improving the combat power of our people’s army,” it said.
As of Monday, the South Korean government had not concluded what kind of weapon was tested, though South Korea’s Yonhap news suggested it may be some sort of long-range artillery; however, that has not been verified.
“Regarding the North Korean high tech weapon test, South Korea and the United States are investigating it. We cannot confirm what it is,” a defense ministry spokesman said.
“The testing of the high-tech tactical weapon has been carried out successfully, meeting all superior and powerful designing indicators,” the Korean Central Broadcasting Station added.
The KCNA report said, “After seeing the power of the tactical weapon, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was so excited to say that another great work was done by the defense scientists and munitions industrial workers to increase the defense capability of the country.”
North Korea’s KCNA news agency did not identify the weapon and only posted a picture of Kim standing on a beach surrounded by officials in military uniforms. No weapons were visible in those images.
Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.