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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday observed a test-launch of “new-type tactical guided missiles,” the country’s state media reported on Wednesday, in what he described as a “warning” to South Korea and the U.S. as they conduct a series of joint military drills this week.
Kim “watched the demonstration fire of new-type tactical guided missiles at daybreak Tuesday” at an observation post alongside top officials, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and the party daily Rodong Sinmun said.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on Tuesday morning reported North Korea had fired two short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) from South Hwanghae province on the western part of the peninsula.
The missiles flew cross-country, in a test which came one day after Seoul and Washington kicked off a down-scaled joint military drill intended as a more low-key alternative to now-terminated Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercise.
The DPRK’s foreign ministry swiftly condemned that exercise, in a statement warning the country may soon deploy additional “powerful physical means” to defend itself.
That press statement saw Pyongyang stress it would not hesitate to “develop, test and deploy the powerful physical means essential for national defense” and seek a new path if the South and the U.S. continued that what it described as “hostile military moves.”
Kim was on Wednesday reported in a Korean-language dispatch to have said that Tuesday’s test-launch would “serve as the opportunity to send suitable warning” in the face of the new joint drills — comments translated as “adequate warning” in KCNA’s English-language version of the report.
“Kim Jong Un noted that the said military action would be an occasion to send an adequate warning to the joint military drill now underway by the U.S. and South Korean authorities,” that report read.
“Two tactical guided missiles launched at the operational airfield in the western area of the country flied [sic] across the sky over the capital area and the central inland region of the country to precisely hit the targeted islet in the East Sea of Korea,” it said.
“The demonstration fire clearly verified the reliability, security, and actual war capacity of the new-type tactical guided weapon system.”
Imagery of the test released by state media appears to confirm earlier speculation that the missile launched on Tuesday was the KN-23 — a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) first displayed at a February 2018 military parade in Pyongyang.
“The images confirm that the missile is yet again the KN23, which is very quickly rising in terms of its flight tests,” Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, told NK News. “This is a very reliable and robust missile, it appears.”
The site of Tuesday’s test was also notable, he added.
“It’s nice to finally have a shot of Kim’s new missile test observation van from the outside,” Panda said. “In 2017, Kim used a similar mobile viewing platform once.”
“The intention may be to reduce the kind of pre-launch signatures that the United States would have gotten used to, like a large static observation area.”
South Korea on Tuesday reported the missiles had flown on an apogee of 37 kilometers, traveling around 450 kilometers at a maximum speed of Mach 6.9 or more.
Tuesday’s exercise was the North’s fourth weapons test since July 25, in what appears to be a protest against the ongoing joint military drills and the recent deployment of F-35A stealth fighter jets in the South.
Pyongyang has in recent weeks ramped up its pressure against Seoul and Washington ahead of the scheduled joint military drills.
The North Korean leader on July 31 and August 2 guided a test-fire of what state media reported was a “newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system.”
July 25 also saw Kim also guide a “power demonstration fire of new-type tactical guided weapon” — a test described as a “solemn warning” to Seoul.
SENDING A MESSAGE
Kim Dong-yub, Director of Research at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, told NK News that Pyongyang was likely seeking to “make its message clear internally and externally” by focusing on these kinds of tests.
“Externally, they (the North) are clearly expressing discontent… at a level which does not disturb the atmosphere for dialogue,” he said.
“Internally, my view is that they aim to alleviate security concerns that the North Korean people have as the country is concentrating on economic issues, putting aside the Byungjin line,” he added.
“[Kim] is considering the armed forces’ morale, and preventing the public and the military from being alienated [from the government].”
If the North is confirmed to have launched the same SRMB tested on July 25, Kim said, it is particularly notable that North Korean media has used the word “missile” for the first time in its coverage.
The ROK JCS on Tuesday said the South and U.S. had assessed that Tuesday’s missiles had similar flight characteristics to the short-range ballistic missiles launched on July 25.
Experts also broadly agreed that the North had test-launched KN-23, which bears similarities with the Russian 9M723/Iskander-M class SRBM.
“My opinion is that the North also carefully used tone-downed expression as it is also well-aware that the launch of ballistic missile is in violation of UN resolutions and could negatively affect North Korea-U.S. dialogue,” Kim Dong-yub said.
Kim Jong Un was on Tuesday accompanied by several of the country’s top officials, including many who would not typically be seen at missile tests.
Among these,North Korean media reported, were vice-chairmen of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Pak Pong Ju, Ri Man Gon, Pak Kwang Ho, Ri Su Yong, O Su Yong, and Pak Thae Song.
First Vice Department Directors of the Central Party Committee Jo Yong Won and Ri Pyong Chol were also present, as were chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Army General Ri Yong Gil and director of the Artillery Bureau of the KPA Army General Pak Jong Chon.
Leading officials in the field of “national defense science” including Jang Chang Ha and Jon Il Ho were also present.
“It appears unusual for such a large number of party officials, including the exclusive party Executive Policy Committee leadership, to be on site for a missile launch,” Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said.
“Plus, this time, Kim did not guide — he observed,” she continued.
“This seems to have been aimed at not only underscoring the importance of the event but also showing off the DPRK leadership’s full support for the country’s weapons programs and Kim’s confidence in the success of the weapon’s launch.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA