North Korea announced Thursday that it had test-fired a new tactical guided weapon, its first missile test since the breakdown of a summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un in February.
It was not immediately clear what type of weapon the North Koreans fired, but experts said the description appeared to rule out a ballistic missile, meaning the move would not violate North Korea’s self-declared moratorium on testing.
Nevertheless, experts said the action was a calibrated sign of defiance by Kim after 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 fired at different targets, could carry a “powerful warhead” and may increase the “combat power” of the country’s military.
Kim was quoted as saying “the development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army.”
The test follows a similar 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.
“Not a ballistic missile,” said Victor Cha, a North Korea expert at Georgetown University in Washington. “Looks like they are working on antiaircraft capabilities with the last test and this one.”
“It shows that North Korea is going on, business as usual, after the failed Hanoi summit,” he continued. “They are giving the U.S. till the end of this year to make a deal, but in the meantime, they will bolster their capabilities, untethered from any agreement.”
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.
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, noted that experts still do not know what tactical system was tested in November.
“However, the U.S. did not detect a missile launch either time, so it must be a short-range system, perhaps an artillery system such as a multiple rocket launcher or an antitank guided missile,” he said. “Pundits and policymakers should refrain from assuming this is a signal of Pyongyang deliberately ratcheting up of tensions or closing the door on negotiations.”
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.”
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.”
Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations said the test “walks up to and may almost step over the line the Trump administration has tried to draw post-Hanoi.”
But Duyeon Kim at the Center for a New American Security called the test “business as usual” and said it 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.”