Amid concerns about the status of ongoing high-level talks between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, the reclusive country announced late Wednesday that it successfully tested a new “tactical guided weapon.” The report, which was first published by North Korea’s state-owned KCNA, offered few details.
However, despite a flurry of headlines insinuating that North Korea may have returned to testing ballistic missiles, it’s unlikely this test had anything to do with North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Officials from both the U.S. Northern and Strategic Commands have confirmed that no ballistic missile launches were detected in vicinity of North Korea, perhaps solidifying the point that this tactical guided weapon isn’t a missile with any notable range. Instead, it seems it’s a smaller weapons platform of some sort, likely meant for use on the battlefield, based on its tactical title.
“The development and completion of this weapons system will be a great historic event in strengthening the combat capability of the People’s Army,” Kim Jong-un was quoted as saying by KCNA. “I was often completely moved in admiration at the time of strategic weapons development, but seeing this it seems our scientists, engineers, and the labor class is truly great. If they are willing then no weapon is beyond creation.”
The report went on to say that the weapons test was “conducted by various firing method on each different targets, had perfectly proved the design specifications of this tactical guided weapon which is evaluated to be superior due to its special flight guidance method and powerful warheads.”
This language also suggests the weapon being tested is meant for use on the battlefield, probably against armored equipment, making rockets among the most likely candidates.
“We don’t know what it is but if it’s another ‘tactical system’ like an MRLS [Multiple Launch Rocket System] or a coastal defense system, or air defense, it would seem to be consistent with Kim potentially reminding both the US and (South Korea)—in a calibrated way—where things could go, if the U.S. especially doesn’t moderate its negotiating position,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
North Korea hasn’t conducted a ballistic missile test since November 2017, although some people are reluctant to credit President Trump for the halt in testing—because Kim’s ultimate goal may have actually been to gain a seat at the negotiating table with the economically and diplomatically powerful United States. Still, North Korea’s long road to fielding nearly-capable nuclear weapons began long before President Trump took office, and those in his camp claim the sitting president is the first to actively engage with the issue in a meaningful way.
President Trump’s last meeting with Kim Jong-un took place in February. It ended abruptly when the Trump administration refused Kim’s proposal to lift the most severe economic sanctions placed on North Korea in exchange for the suspension of operations at the country’s largest nuclear facility.