North Korean TV shows Kim Jong-Un looking through binoculars during a trip to an artillery unit on Wolnae Island near the disputed maritime frontier with South Korea. Photo: AFP/NORTH KOREAN TV
North Korean TV shows Kim Jong-Un looking through binoculars during a trip to an artillery unit on Wolnae Island near the disputed maritime frontier with South Korea. Photo: AFP/NORTH KOREAN TV

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw the testing of a new, tactical weapon on Friday – sparking the second global media frenzy of the week over an issue unrelated to the state’s strategic arms programs.

North Korea’s state broadcaster revealed that Kim had overseen the test of a “high-tech tactical weapon.” The weapon was not identified, but the (North) Korean Central Broadcasting Station said it had been in development since the era of Kim Jong Il – the second-generation North Korean leader who died in 2011.

Government sources in Seoul told Yonhap news agency that the weapon could be a long-range artillery piece. “We presume it to be a new type of long-range artillery,” an anonymous source said. “This is a weapon that has been under development since the era of Kim Jong Il, and our intelligence authorities have continuously been following up on it.”

Tactical weapons are designed for use against battlefield combatants and include small arms, armor, artillery, helicopters and fighter-bombers. Strategic weapons – such as inter-continental ballistic missiles and most nuclear devices – are designed to strike deep into enemy territory, such as distant cities, and cause mass destruction.

It is unclear whether the test was routine; whether it was designed to firm up Kim’s support in a military that may be restive amid an ongoing but currently stalled denuclearization process, or if was in response to ongoing small-scale drills being held in the South by South Korean and US Marines.

While information on the weapon tested was vague and it looks to be of zero international significance, it generated endless headlines across the global media. It comes amid stalled Pyongyang-Washington negotiations and represents the first publicly revealed North Korean weapon test this year –a year which has seen Kim announce a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests.

He has also unleashed a global charm offensive that has won him summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump. In so doing, he has broken out of his international isolation and kick-started an uncertain process of peninsula-wide denuclearization.

International media storm

Friday’s news was the second time this week that North Korea’s non-strategic, non-nuclear weapons had generated shockwaves across global media.

On Monday, the New York Times published a report, citing satellite surveillance and expert analyses, on missile sites hidden in North Korea’s mountains. The NYT report accused North Korea of engaging in “great deception” – even though the weapons in question were neither long-range nor nuclear armed and were well known to be in the state’s arsenal.

The report was widely picked up by a first wave of global media, but was subsequently critiqued by other outlets, including this one, for overstating the importance of routine military activity and alleging a deception when there was, in fact, none.

The story earned a derisive tweet from US President Donald Trump, who dismissed it as fake news, and a rebuke from the South Korean government, which said the report covered nothing that was unknown.

With talks on North Korea at an apparent impasse, global media have little to report, on one of the world’s hottest news stories. This may be generating overly sensational coverage of routine events.

“I think the particular hysteria that some media is guilty of when it comes to North Korea is sort of projecting this idea that North Korea is somehow a direct threat to Americans – ‘If  we don’t jump on this guy, he will attack us’,” said Michael Breen, a former reporter who heads Seoul-based media consultancy Insight Communications.

Another issue may be hardline views current among some think tanks and expert circles in the United States.

“Sensible media does not make this stuff up, it takes its lead from experts and policy types and analysts, and there is an establishment in Washington which is against any progress on North Korea that is not based on regime change or regime collapse,” Breen said.

Se-woong Koo, the publisher of South Korean online media Korea Expose, agreed.

“To put it into perspective, think about what any country does – there are weapons, there are parades – but when North Korea does it, it is imbued with greater meaning,” he said. “There is a clear sense that North Korea represents a danger and media is invested and looking for what it can present as evidence.”

A further issue may be media bias against the current US administration.

“There is a desire on the part of liberal media to try and find anything that can discredit Donald Trump, and North Korea is a really good way of doing it – especially as negotiations are not going especially well,” Koo said. “There are people out there who want to see the Trump administration fail, and having North Korea go back on its word would be a fantastic way of landing that blow.”

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