North Korea says it administered a series of successful tests of a replacement long-range aircraft over the weekend because the country continues to expand its military capabilities amid stalled nuclear talks with the US.
The Korean Central press agency said on Monday the cruise missiles, which had been under development for 2 years, successfully hit targets 1,500km (930 miles) away on Saturday and Sunday before falling into the North’s body of water.
The North hailed its new weapons as a “strategic weapon of great significance” that meets leader Kim Jong UN’s call to strengthen the country’s military might.
Pyongyang’s last known missile test was in March when it launched a replacement tactical short-range missile. It also conducted an aircraft test just hours after US President Joe Biden took office in late January.
“This would be the first cruise missile in North Korea to be explicitly designated a ‘strategic’ role,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This may be a common euphemism for the nuclear-capable system.”
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Tokyo was “concerned” over reports of the test which it might work closely with the U.S. and South Korea to watch things.
The US Indo-Pacific Command said during a statement the test “highlights DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that pose to its neighbors and the international community.” It stressed that the US commitment to the defense of South Korea and Japan was “ironclad”.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff of Staff (JCS) said that an in-depth analysis was underway in close cooperation with US intelligence but declined to verify details, Yonhap press agency reported.
The test is the latest sign of how the North has continued to expand its weapons capabilities since talks with the US to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs stalled in 2019. United Nations sanctions ban the North from using missile technology, although not cruise missiles, which fly at a lower altitude over shorter distances. Rodong Sinmun, the ruling Workers’ Party’s official newspaper, ran photos of the new long-range aircraft within the air and being fired from a transporter-erector-launcher.
The missile may be a strategic weapon that has been developed over the past two years and a key element of a five-year plan outlined in January to advance defense science and arsenals, KCNA said.
“Detailed tests of missile parts, scores of engine ground thrust tests, various flight tests, control and guidance tests, warhead power tests, etc were conducted with success,” it said.
Describing the test as “provocative”, Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Woman’s University in Seoul, said the implication was that Pyongyang planned to miniaturize nuclear warheads to suit the missiles.
“If that is the case, then the test is deserving of an international effort to strengthen sanctions,” Easley said.
The test announcement comes just each day before chief nuclear negotiators from the U.S, South Korea, and Japan meet in Tokyo to explore ways to interrupt the deadlock with North Korea.
“That meeting was to focus on creative ways of diplomatically engaging Pyongyang,” Easley noted in emailed comments. “But now a trilateral statement is required that mentions sanctions and defense cooperation while calling on North Korea to practice military restraint, resume dialogue, and accept humanitarian assistance for alleviating the suffering of its people.
North Korean leader Kim didn’t appear to possess attended the test, with KCNA saying Pak Jong Chon, a member of the Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo and a secretary of its central committee, oversaw it.
Biden’s administration has said it’s hospitable using diplomatic channels to realize North Korea’s denuclearization but has shown no willingness to ease sanctions.
China’s secretary of state, Wang Yi, is additionally scheduled to go to Seoul on Tuesday for talks together with his counterpart, Chung Eui-Yong.