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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Update at 1400 EST: This article has been updated to include comment from a U.S. State Department spokesperson.
A top North Korean army official declared Saturday night that a new strategic weapon under development has benefited greatly from recent tests conducted by the Academy of Defence Science (ADS).
The statement from chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Pak Jong Chon, released by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), came just hours after the country announced that it conducted a “crucial” new test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground on Friday night.
It also comes just hours before the top U.S. State Department official on North Korean affairs, Stephen Biegun, is scheduled to arrive in Seoul to discuss the situation with his South Korean counterparts.
Pak said in the statement he was pleased with the ADS having “recently registered great successes in bolstering up the defence capabilities while successfully conducting tests of great significance one after another.”
“The priceless data, experience and new technologies gained in the recent tests of defense science research will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon of the DPRK.”
This apparent new weapon is being developed “for definitely and reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.”
The statement said the development helps North Korea ensure a “balance of power” with the U.S., and says the country has through the tests and perhaps other unspecified activity “stored up a tremendous power.”
Pak said North Korea’s army is prepared to carry out the orders of leader Kim Jong Un, and appeared to issue a veiled threat that the U.S. would have to witness the country’s military action in order to accurately judge its power.
As for Kim Jong Un’s self-declared end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to satisfy North Korea’s demands in denuclearization talks, Pak included a warning in his statement that peace is on the line.
“In the situation of the acute confrontation, the U.S. and other hostile forces will spend the year-end in peace only when they hold off any words and deeds rattling us,” Pak’s statement read.
One expert told NK News that Pak’s reference to a new strategic weapon could hold implications for another of Kim’s self-declared restraints, the moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests.
“As we have all suspected, the testing moratorium has not stopped them from continuing to expand and improve their nuclear and missile capabilities,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We can’t agree on a definition of ‘denuclearization’ but North Korea may just now define ‘renuclearization,'” he said, positing that the “development of a new strategic system” described in Pak’s statement could refer to a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a solid fuel rocket engine, an “improved liquid fuel” Hwasong-15, or even an improved intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).
Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official working on North Korea, told NK News that the “emphasis on ‘strategic’ seems to go along with the recent focus on denuclearization diplomacy being off the table.”
“North Korea’s actions to advance its nuclear program aren’t tactical or short-term, they seem to be saying, but inevitable moves deliberately calculated to serve North Korea’s broader security interests over time.”
The country also resurfaced the term “nuclear war deterrent” in its report earlier in the day on Friday night’s test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, adding it to say that the test was part of the DPRK’s “strategic nuclear war deterrent.”
Further details of that test have yet to be released by North Korea, and may not be in the short term, as another test conducted there on December 7 also was reported without images.
Independent analysts as well as South Korea’s defense minister, however, determined that the December 7 event was a burn test of a rocket engine — also a likely candidate, experts say, for the DPRK’s recent December 13 test as well, given that state media claimed it was conducted “from 22:41 to 22:48.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department official Stephen Biegun, joined by Deputy Special Representative for North Korea Alex Wong and National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director for Asian Affairs Allison Hooker, will arrive in Seoul sometime on Sunday for a three-day trip that will also see a stop in Tokyo.
Biegun is expected to meet with local counterpart Lee Do-hoon and other top officials to “discuss ways to bring substantial progress on achieving a complete denuclearization and enduring peace,” the South’s Minstry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said in a statement carried by multiple outlets.
Some outlets have reported, citing anonymous sources, that Biegun may also travel to the inter-Korean border to meet with North Korean officials, though nothing has been confirmed.
When asked about the DPRK’s latest move, a State Department spokesperson told NK News on Saturday, “We have seen the reports of a test, and are coordinating closely with our Korean and Japanese allies.”
And while the stepped-up actions by North Korea have prompted many observers to suggest Kim Jong Un has now already decided to shun talks with the U.S., Oba told NK News he believes it does not serve “North Korea’s interests to completely make engagement, especially with President Trump in an election year, impossible.”
He added that the statement is intended “to gain leverage by elevating the level of threat and urgency while also trying to preserve some space for maneuver.”
Top U.S. officials have yet to respond to Saturday’s announcement of the latest North Korean test the previous day, though Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said at the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday that potential moves towards ICBM development pose a “direct threat to our homeland.”
“War on the peninsula would be horrible. Nobody wants to see that,” Yonhap News Agency quoted Esper as saying.
“I think we’re going to be tested here soon — test in the sense of this next stage, trying to get them back to the negotiating table, and hopefully not back on the other path.”
Edited by Jacob Fromer
Featured image: Pak Jong Chon and Kim Jong Un, KCNA