SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea’s recent sword clatter after months of relative quiet makes it clear that leader Kim Jong Un is working to expand his arsenal of weapons.
Nuclear-capable missiles hidden in trains that can be launched anywhere along a railroad track. A new cruise missile resembling the US Tomahawk that can potentially be topped off with atomic warheads. The apparent resumption of fuel production for potential nuclear bombs.
They are likely an attempt to wrest concessions from Washington if and when long-stalled diplomatic talks on Kim’s nuclear program resume. Yet part of the message is directed domestically to reinforce internal unity as North Koreans face deeper difficulties in an ever-healthy economy that has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Here, then, is a look at Kim’s recent weapons tests, the first of their kind in six months, and what they may mean for efforts to confront the North’s nuclear ambitions.
THE NEW WEAPONS
North Korea called its first train-launched ballistic missile tests successful, saying the two weapons launched Wednesday struck a target in the sea 800 kilometers (500 miles) away.
That puts all of the South Korean and US military bases it hosts within reach. Experts say the missiles are nuclear capable.
Shooting from trains also adds another platform for launching missiles, in addition to mobile trucks, land platforms and an underwater method that is still being tested. A train-based platform uses North Korea’s national rail network and enables secret movement and launch, although experts note that rail networks are vulnerable targets in a crisis.
For South Korea, “having to defend against North Korean missiles, it’s another headache,” said Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert at the South Korean Institute for Science and Technology Policy.
Last weekend, North Korea also tested what it called a new cruise missile, which flew about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), making it the North’s longest-range cruise missile, capable of reaching all of Japan, that it is also home to 50,000 American soldiers. .
It is developing with nuclear capability and flies at low altitude, making it difficult to detect. Its development demonstrates North Korea’s drive to break through enemy defense lines and diversify a weapons inventory heavy on ballistic missiles.
Satellite photos also show signs that North Korea has restarted operations at its main factory to produce weapons-grade plutonium, a key ingredient used to make nuclear weapons.
WHAT KIM WANTS
Kim’s resumed testing activities are largely aimed “at developing military capabilities, but may also be attempts to shore up national unity,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul. “Pyongyang could launch a provocation even when it is in desperate financial need because it wants to hide its weaknesses and win outside concessions.”
Kim may also be reverting to a tried-and-true technique of pressuring the world with missile launches and outrageous threats before offering last-minute negotiations aimed at getting help.
“It’s worth continuing to watch how things are going, but we may be near another phase in (North Korea’s) risky politics,” said Park Won-gon, professor of North Korean studies at Women’s University. Ewha.
North Korea’s recent tests could be low-key reactions to the continuation of joint US-South Korean military exercises and South Korea’s efforts to develop its weapons programs.
Kim’s ultimate goal is likely to be to obtain relief from crippling international economic sanctions, even as he gains recognition from the United States as a nuclear state, allowing him to cling to nuclear weapons that he may see as his only guarantee of survival.
North Korea may continue to intensify its lobbying campaign, at least until China begins pushing for calm ahead of the Beijing Olympics early next year. But it could still fall behind on more provocative weapons tests, as it seeks less coercive diplomacy.
The North will have until around November to advance weapons development with testing, said Park, the analyst. After that, you risk damaging relations with China.
North Korea may also hold another weapons test around a big state anniversary, such as the founding day of the ruling Workers’ Party in October. 10.
“To improve weapons capabilities, the next in the test queue may not be a nuclear device or ICBM, but a submarine-based system,” Easley said.
Despite its recent weapons tests, North Korea has maintained a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests for more than three years. That suggests he still wants to keep alive the chances of future diplomacy with Washington.
Pyongyang may be carefully measuring its actions as it seeks a window back to diplomacy.
“It would not be surprising if North Korea makes an early effort to get to Washington or Seoul, if only to gauge its intention,” said Hong Min, an analyst at the Korea National Unification Institute in Seoul.