By Joyce Lee and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the test site of a new tactical weapon in his first public “field inspection” since last year, hailing it as a “display of our rapidly-growing defense capabilities,” state media said on Friday.
The North’s first mention of a new weapons development in months threatens to sour the political atmosphere as negotiations between Pyongyang and the United States appear to have stalled.
“This result today is a justification of the party’s policy focused on defense science and technology, another display of our rapidly-growing defense capabilities to the whole region, and a groundbreaking change in strengthening our military’s combat capabilities,” Kim said.
The only picture released by state media showed Kim standing on a beach surrounded by officials in military uniforms, but no weapons were visible.
International weapons experts said the officials included a leader of the artillery corps of the Korean People’s Army.
The test was successful and the weapon could protect North Korea like a “steel wall,” KCNA, the North Korean news agency, said.
However, the understated announcement was more likely aimed at reassuring the North Korean military rather than trying to torpedo diplomatic talks, said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
“North Korea is trying to show its soldiers that they are becoming high-tech and keeping a certain level of military capability, while trying to eliminate dissatisfaction and worries inside its military,” he added.
The test may also have been a response to recent joint military drills by the United States and South Korea, which Pyongyang said violated recent pacts to halt to “all hostile acts,” said Yang Uk, an analyst at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.
Kim said the weapons system tested was one in which his father, Kim Jong Il, had taken a special interest during his lifetime, personally leading its development.
Kim’s last publicized military inspection was the launch of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on November 29 last year, though he engaged in at least eight other military related activities this year, the South’s Unification Ministry said.
Kim this year declared his nuclear force “complete” and said he would focus on economic development.
North Korea has continued to showcase its conventional military capabilities, including at a large military parade in Pyongyang, its capital, on September 9.
But any testing of new weapons threatens to raise tension with Washington, which has said there will be no easing in international sanctions until North Korea takes more concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.
At Kim’s unprecedented summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in June, the leaders agreed to work toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula, and establish new relations with each other.
The agreement was short on specifics, and negotiations have made little headway since, however.
The White House referred questions about the latest development to the State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pyongyang has increasingly expressed frustrations at Washington‘s refusal to ease sanctions, and recently threatened to restart development of its nuclear weapons if more concessions were not made.
A meeting in New York planned this month between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korea‘s Kim Yong Chol, a senior aide to Kim, was postponed.
On Thursday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Trump planned to meet Kim again in 2019 and will push for a concrete plan outlining Pyongyang’s moves to end its arms programs.
South Korea‘s defense ministry said it was preparing a statement on the North Korean test, but did not have an immediate comment.
A North Korean delegation is visiting economy-related sites in the South as part of reconciliation efforts between the two.
Trump on Tuesday criticized what he called “inaccurate” media reports that North Korea had not declared an estimated 20 missile bases and added in a tweet: “I will be the first to let you know if things go bad!”
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim in Seoul, and Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Clarence Fernandez)