Nevertheless, experts said the action was a calibrated sign of defiance by Kim following a stalemate in the denuclearization talks and a reminder that his country was continuing to develop its conventional weapons program. But they said it does not close the door on diplomacy or negotiations about North Korea’s nuclear program.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said Kim oversaw the testing of the weapon Wednesday, explaining that it was tested “in various modes of firing at different targets,” had a “peculiar mode of guiding flight,” and could carry a powerful warhead.
Kim was quoted as saying that “the development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army.”
Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the description suggested a short-range missile that can be launched from the ground, sea and air.
“This looks like a new form of cruise missile,” he said. “If it’s a new form of cruise missile, it’s irrelevant to sanctions, because the current U.N. sanctions are about ballistic missiles.”
The test follows an announcement in November of the firing of what state media called an “ultramodern tactical weapon,” noting at the time Kim’s “passionate joy” at its success.
Lee Jong-Seok, a former South Korean unification minister who is now at the Sejong Institute, said the latest announcement sent a message to Washington but did not cross the line.
“What matters in negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. is strategic, not tactical, weapons,” he said. “A test of tactical weapons does not constitute a full-on provocation, but North Korea is clearly sending a defiant message to the United States. Kim Jong Un does not intend to walk out of negotiations but shows that he can ‘seek a new way’ in the worst case.”
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation warned against reading too much into the latest announcement, noting that experts still don’t even know what system was tested in November. In neither case was anything detected by the United States, he added, implying it was some sort of short-range system.
“Pundits and policymakers should refrain from assuming this is a signal of Pyongyang deliberately ratcheting up tensions or closing the door on negotiations,” he said.
Trump and Kim held a historic first summit in Singapore last June, but their second meeting nearly two months ago in Hanoi ended abruptly without any progress on efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program.
In a speech last week, Kim said he would be prepared to meet Trump for a third summit, but only if the United States fundamentally changed its approach. He also warned that his patience was running out and gave the United States until the end of the year to make a “bold decision.”
That followed a New Year’s Day speech in which Kim threatened to seek a “new way” if the United States continued to apply sanctions pressure and demand unilateral concessions.
North Korea swore off the testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles after firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at the end of 2017, but it did not promise to halt the testing of all types of weapons. Trump has touted the suspension of nuclear and ICBM tests as proof of the success of his negotiations with Pyongyang.
A U.S. official familiar with monitoring operations told the Associated Press that neither U.S. Strategic Command nor the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) had observed any weapons test. That rules out tests that go high into the atmosphere, such as a ballistic missile, but does not rule out tests at lower altitudes.
Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at Georgetown University in Washington, said North Korea was continuing to develop its weapons systems, calling it “business as usual, after the failed Hanoi summit.”
Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, said Kim was sending a signal.
“Kim is trying to make a statement to the Trump administration that his military potential is growing by the day, and that his regime is becoming frustrated with Washington’s lack of flexibility in recent negotiations,” he said. “Sadly, we are only one ICBM test away from another crisis with Pyongyang, and these smaller tests only bring us closer to such a moment.”
But Duyeon Kim at the Center for a New American Security said the test was unlikely to affect negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang in any meaningful way.
“It’s not all about the U.S.,” she said. “It’s just as much as, if not more, a domestic message to assure the North Korean people and military elite that summitry won’t affect their national defense and strength.”
Hudson reported from Washington. Min Joo Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.