Since the prospects for North Korean denuclearization have soured – with US President Donald Trump’s scuttling of a February Hanoi summit with Kim Jong Un and now a new Pyongyang attack on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – few observers will be surprised if the regime reverts to what had been its default policy.
That default policy is, of course, staging frequent and provocative nuclear and long-range missile tests – intended to show its enemies the potential costs of failing to reach a settlement.
However, the consensus among Pyongyang watchers is that matters have yet to reach such a pass.
Although probably intended as a warning, the “tactical weapon” test the regime just announced, the first of its kind since nuclear negotiations with Washington stalled, appears to involve not intercontinental weaponry but the sort of artillery that’s deployed against next-door South Korea.
North Korean state media reported that Kim on Wednesday had supervised the test-firing of a new tactical weapon with a “powerful warhead.”
Nervous responses could be excused since the report came after satellite imagery suggested heightened activity at a nuclear test site.
Further suggesting that North Korea might still cling to at least some shred of hope for the US talks is its foreign ministry’s Thursday attack on Pompeo. Describing the secretary as “reckless” and immature, the ministry said it wanted him replaced by another interlocutor.
“I am afraid that if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled,” Kwon Jong Gun, director general of the ministry’s Department of American Affairs, said, according to the official KCNA news agency.
“Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the US, I wish our dialogue counterpart would be not Pompeo but [another] person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us.”
It is not the first time North Korea has singled out Pompeo for special criticism. When the secretary of state met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang last July, he was condemned for his “gangster-like” insistence that the North move toward unilateral disarmament.
Since the beginning of the thaw in relations between the US and North Korea, Pyongyang has been far happier to deal directly with Trump, who critics fear is too soft on the regime and is not sufficiently versed in diplomacy.
Wednesday’s weapon test was “conducted in various modes of firing at different targets,” the Korean Central News Agency reported, adding that Kim “guided the test-fire.”
The report said Kim described its development as one “of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army.”
The “advantages” of the weapon were “the peculiar mode of guiding flight and the load of a powerful warhead,” KCNA said. Its report gave no details of the weapon.
Not on South’s radar
AFP quoted an unnamed South Korean military official as saying the southern side had not detected anything on radar, so it was unlikely to have been a missile.
“When North Korea launches a missile, our radar catches it,” said the official, “but no missile was detected.”
The presidential office in Seoul said it had no comment, AFP said. The wire service quoted North Korea watcher Ankit Panda as saying: “The description makes whatever was tested sound like a missile, but that could be everything from a small anti-tank guided missile to a surface-to-air missile to a rocket artillery system.”
Earlier in the week, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US monitoring organization, said activity had been detected at Yongbyon, the North’s main nuclear testing facility.
The think tank said evidence suggested Pyongyang might be processing radioactive material into bomb fuel.
Kim’s Hanoi summit with Trump, the second between the two men, ended abruptly, with North Korea later protesting that the US was being unreasonable in its demands.
Since then, North Korea has said it was mulling options for its diplomacy with the US, and Kim said last week he was open to talks with Trump only if Washington came with the “proper attitude.”
AFP quoted Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, as saying the test was a message to the US showing its displeasure over the stalled nuclear talks.
But the fact that it was not a long-range missile or nuclear test “underscores Pyongyang wants to keep alive dialogue with Washington,” he added.
“Pyongyang cannot conduct a nuclear or long-range missile launch at this point unless it wants to totally shatter what remains of the US-North talks,” he continued.
Pentagon officials said they were aware of the test report but declined to comment further.
With reporting by AFP.