SEOUL — North Korea confirmed Sunday that it had fired multiple rocket launchers and “tactical guided weapons” from its east coast the previous day under the personal supervision of leader Kim Jong Un, with experts saying the test included a short-range ballistic missile.
The test does not invalidate North Korea’s self-declared moratorium on inter-continental ballistic missile tests, but it clearly raises tensions with Washington and Seoul.
“The purpose of the drill was to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defense units in the frontline area and on the eastern front," state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
Kim, who was pictured scowling and looking tough with binoculars in his hand, urged his troops to bear in mind “the iron truth that genuine peace and security are ensured and guaranteed only by powerful strength,” KCNA said.
Earlier, President Trump appeared to play down the threat and leave the door open to diplomacy.
“Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it. He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!” he tweeted.
Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California, said photos issued by KCNA showed the test of a new short-range ballistic missile.
“North Korea tested a short-range ballistic missile, which makes this very similar to 2006 when North Korea moved to end its flight test moratorium starting with short-range missiles that didn't technically violate it,” he tweeted.
“At the time, the Bush Administration downplayed the first test of the KN-02 (a short-range ballistic missile) in March. Then, as now, the moratorium only covered longer-range missiles. But in hindsight, it was a warning of the fireworks to come in July,” he added.
On Saturday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North fired “multiple unidentified short-range projectiles” into the sea over a 20-minute period.
It said the projectiles had flown between 45 to 125 miles and landed in the water between the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
“Our military has ramped up surveillance and vigilance in case of a further launch from North Korea,” the Joint Chiefs said. “South Korea and the United States are closely coordinating to maintain a full readiness posture.”
In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, “We are aware of North Korea’s actions tonight. We will continue to monitor as necessary.”
The launches set off a flurry of phone calls and meetings, with, for instance, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talking to Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korea’s Kang Kyung-wha. Special Envoy Stephen Biegun talked to his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon, and South Korea’s national security director convened an emergency meeting.
In a rare show of frustration with Pyongyang, South Korea’s presidential Blue House said it was “very concerned” about North Korea’s actions, which it said went against a September military cooperation agreement between the two sides. It urged North Korea “to stop actions that raise military tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
“From now on, our government will work in coordination with the United States to ramp up vigilance and closely communicate with neighboring countries as needed,” said spokeswoman Ko Min-jung.
“In particular, we take note of how [North Korea] made a such move amid stalled denuclearization talks and expect North Korea to actively take part in efforts to resume dialogues.”
Pyongyang announced a moratorium on nuclear and inter-continental ballistic missile tests in November 2017, helping to set the stage for the talks with South Korea and the United States. But tensions have grown since the breakdown of a summit in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The regime is frustrated with the continued imposition of United Nations Security Council sanctions and by what it sees as unilateral U.S. demands that it disarm.
It has also repeatedly complained about continued military exercises between the United States and South Korea. It recently warned that American hostility would “as wind is bound to bring waves . . . naturally bring our corresponding acts.”
Last month, it announced that Kim had attended the successful testing of a “tactical guided weapon,” and the latest missile launch appears to be a further calibrated step to signal its frustration.
Grace Liu, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., called the launch “a signal” that the Pyongyang regime wants movement on negotiations with the United States.
In a speech last month, Kim Jong Un 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.”
“The message here is not that diplomacy is over — remember, Kim has set the clock ticking to the end of the year,” said Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow in the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Rather, this serves, like the tactical weapon tests, to show internal naysayers . . . that Kim takes national defense seriously.”
It can also be seen as a “tit-for-tat” move in response to U.S.-South Korea exercises, he said.
Shin Beom-chul, at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, noted that North Korea had also objected strongly to last month’s U.S.-South Korean training on an anti-ballistic missile defense system purchased from the United States, denouncing it as a “military provocation.”
“I view [the launch] as a way to pressure the United States,” he said. “They are reacting to South Korea’s military build up and THAAD missile defense training, while showing the possibility of carrying out a strategic provocation like a long-range missile launch.”
Such a long-range missile launch, if it happened, would devastate President Trump's “self-proclaimed achievement in North Korea policy,” he said.
Harry Kazianis, Korean studies director at the National Interest said it was a sign of Kim’s mounting frustration and warned it had raised risks of an escalation in tension.
“Chairman Kim has decided to remind the world — and specifically the United States — that his weapons capabilities are growing by the day,” he said. “My fear is that we are at the beginning stages of a slide back to the days of nuclear war threats and personal insults, a dangerous cycle of spiking tensions that must be avoided at all costs.”
Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report. Denyer reported from Tokyo.