WASHINGTON — North Korea said on Thursday that it test-fired a new type of “tactical guided weapon,” in what appeared to be a warning from Kim Jong-un to President Trump that unless once-promising negotiations with Washington resume, the two countries could again be on a collision course.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency did not specify what type of weapon was involved in the test. But there was no evidence the test involved a nuclear detonation or an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The North has observed a voluntary moratorium of those tests since November 2017, and President Trump has repeatedly said that the North’s self-imposed suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests was one of his administration’s biggest achievements, crediting himself with averting war by first threatening the North with “fire and fury” and then holding two face-to-face meetings with Mr. Kim.
But at the latest of those meetings, in Hanoi in February, the two leaders failed to reach an agreement, after Mr. Trump rejected, at the insistence of his top advisers, Mr. Kim’s proposal to lift the harshest sanctions on the North in return for suspending operations at North Korea’s largest nuclear facility. Since then, there has been virtually no communication, much less negotiation, between the two countries.
Now Mr. Kim appears to be carefully calibrating his expressions of displeasure.
Experts said it was likely that the test announced on Thursday morning in Pyongyang was a demonstration of a conventional weapons system, perhaps artillery or antiaircraft. If so, that would amount to signal-sending by Mr. Kim, who North Korea media said witnessed the test.
His presence sent an unmistakable message: That the North would continue to amass new arms while the standoff with Washington continued. Mr. Kim hailed the event as having “very weighty significance.”
In recent days the North Korean leader has said he would give the United States until the end of the year to come up with concrete proposals that would lift sanctions on the North — an implicit warning that, after that deadline, it might resume the nuclear and intercontinental missile testing that had appeared, in the summer of 2017, to be leading to conflict.
But the announcement of Thursday’s test suggested that Mr. Kim was willing to consider gradually raising the stakes sooner, and making Mr. Trump fear that his signature foreign policy initiative could collapse before the 2020 elections.
Mr. Kim has also been under pressure at home, where many expected him to return from Hanoi celebrating a lifting of the sanctions that have weighed heavily on the North Korean economy.
The breakdown of the Hanoi summit was considered a huge embarrassment for Mr. Kim. He took a 65-hour-long train ride to meet Mr. Trump in Hanoi and had to return home without badly needed relief from sanctions. Following the breakdown, satellite imagery showed new activities at some of the North’s long-range rocket test and missile development sites.
Shin Beom-chul, a North Korea expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said that with this test, Mr. Kim was exhorting his people to prepare for a military standoff with the United States while at the same time putting pressure on Washington.
“This time he tried a conventional-weapon test, but he is clearly signaling that if the Americans don’t offer a compromise by the end of the year, he will switch to more provocative strategic-weapons tests beginning next year,” Mr. Shin said.
But the test also revealed Mr. Kim’s growing desperation, said Woo Jung-yeop, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
“Kim Jong-un could not dare a big provocation, but he had to try something to show that North Korea remains a threat and to draw a reluctant United States back to the negotiating table,” said Mr. Woo.
The White House had no immediate comment on the test.
Several days ago, appearing with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, Mr. Trump for the first time suggested he might be willing to entertain a “step-by-step” deal to denuclearization — contradicting his own senior aides, who had been insisting in public comments and private briefings with reporters that only a full dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons, missiles and facilities would result in the lifting of sanctions.
At the meeting in Hanoi, the second between the two leaders who first met in Singapore in June 2018, Mr. Trump had proposed exactly that grand bargain: North Korea would get rid of its entire nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as the material and facilities needed to build and test the weapons, in exchange for an end to the American-led sanctions.
Mr. Kim put forth a much more modest bargain in Hanoi. The North would dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex, an aging facility at the heart of its nuclear program, for an end to the sanctions most damaging to its economy, those enacted since 2016.
Talks quickly broke down, and the summit collapsed, with both sides pointing fingers.
In a speech earlier this year, Mr. Kim warned that his country might take a “new way” of protecting its interest if the United States insisted on maintaining sanctions.
During Thursday’s test of the weapon, which was conducted by the North’s Academy of Defense Science, Mr. Kim said its development “serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army,” the North Korean news agency said.
The test was the first since last November when the country said Mr. Kim had attended the test of an unidentified “newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon.”
After that test, the South Korean news media, quoting government sources, said that North Korea appeared to have tested multiple-rocket launchers, not missiles. Besides the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles, which are probably capable of reaching the continental United States, such rockets are considered one of the greatest military threats to South Korea, because the North deploys them near the countries’ border to target the South’s capital, Seoul, a city of 10 million people.
The Defense Ministry of South Korea did not immediately comment on the North’s latest weapon test. But officials there said the test of a “tactical weapon” indicated that Mr. Kim was being careful not to step over the line by conducting nuclear and long-range ballistic missile tests.
While Mr. Kim is clearly impatient with Washington, he has avoided direct criticism of Mr. Trump. Instead, he has portrayed other members of the administration as hawks, or warmongers, making clear the only way to resolve the issues is in personality-driven diplomacy with Mr. Trump.
But some analysts in South Korea had warned that the North might resort to low-level provocations, like rocket or even short-range ballistic missile tests, to increase its bargaining power should Mr. Trump not return to the negotiating table with a compromise.
North Korea has a history of using the prospect of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula as leverage when negotiations with Washington do not go in its favor.
Mr. Trump, who has said he and Mr. Kim “fell in love,” has said he would be “very disappointed” if the North resumes weapons tests. But he also said he was in no hurry to meet Mr. Kim again. United States officials hope that sanctions will eventually force North Korea back to the negotiating table with a more palatable offer to denuclearize.
News credit : Nytimes