North Korea’s recent missile launches were a simulated use of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons to “hit and wipe out” potential South Korean and US targets, according to state media, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled he would conduct more provocative tests.
The North’s statement, issued on the 77th anniversary of its ruling Workers’ Party, is seen as an attempt to burnish Kim’s image at home amid pandemic-related hardships, as he defiantly pushes to expand his weapons arsenal in order to wrest greater concessions from its rivals in future negotiations.
“Through seven times of launching drills of tactical nuclear operation units, the actual war capabilities… of nuclear combat forces ready to hit and wipe out the set objects at any location and at any time were fully displayed,” according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
The missile tests, according to KCNA, were conducted in response to recent naval exercises between US and South Korean forces, which included the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan for the first time in five years.
North Korea, seeing the drills as a military threat, decided to stage “the simulation of an actual war” to test and improve its war deterrence and send a warning to its enemies, according to KCNA.
North Korea regards US-South Korean military drills as an invasion rehearsal, despite the allies’ insistence that they are defensive in nature. Since the election of a conservative government in Seoul in May, the US and South Korean militaries have increased their drills, posing a greater security threat to Kim.
The launches, all of which were overseen by Kim, included a nuclear-capable ballistic missile launched beneath a reservoir in the northeast, other ballistic missiles designed to launch nuclear strikes on South Korean airfields, ports, and command facilities, and a new type of ground-to-ground ballistic missile that flew over Japan, according to KCNA. North Korea also flew 150 warplanes for separate live-firing and other drills, according to the report, in the country’s first-ever such training.
According to Cheong Seong-Chang of South Korea’s private Sejong Institute, the missile launches marked the first time North Korea conducted drills involving army units tasked with the operation of tactical nuclear weapons.
North Korea, according to Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, is likely to diversify launch sites to make it difficult for its adversaries to detect missile liftoffs in advance and conduct preemptive strikes.
According to KCNA, when the weapon launched from the reservoir was flying above the sea target, North Korean authorities confirmed the reliability of the missile’s warhead, which was apparently a dummy one, exploding at the set altitude.
The launch, according to Kim, could be a test of exploding a nuclear weapon above South Korea’s southeastern port city of Busan, where the Reagan previously docked. He claimed that the missile tested was a new version of North Korea’s highly maneuverable KN-23 missile, which was modeled after Russia’s Iskander missile.
North Korea released a slew of images depicting the launches. One of them showed Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju frowning and covering their ears while wearing ochre field jackets. Some observers believe the image demonstrated Ri’s elevated political status because it was likely her first time witnessing weapons launch with her husband.
Concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program have grown in recent months, as the country passed a new law authorizing the use of its bombs as a deterrent in certain situations and reported moves to deploy tactical nuclear weapons along its frontline border with South Korea. North Korea launched more than 40 missiles this year.
According to some experts, Kim Jong Un would eventually aim to use his advanced nuclear arsenal to gain US recognition of North Korea as a legitimate nuclear state, which Kim sees as critical in getting crippling UN sanctions lifted against his country.
Kim Jong Un stated that the recent launches were “an obvious warning” to Seoul and Washington about North Korea’s nuclear attack capabilities. According to KCNA, Kim reiterated that he has no plans to resume the stalled disarmament diplomacy with the US at this time.
Kim also stated that his military’s nuclear combat forces would maintain “their strongest nuclear response posture and further strengthen it in every way” in order to carry out their duties of defending the North’s dignity and sovereign rights.