North Korea successfully tested what it called a “newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon,” state-run media reported Friday, dealing a challenge to the United States as the two sides face a stalemate in nuclear talks.
Leader Kim Jong Un observed the test at the Academy of Defense Science and “expressed great satisfaction,” calling it a “decisive turn” in bolstering the combat power of the North Korean army, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
It was the first publicly reported weapons test observed by Kim since the North test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile nearly a year ago.
The portly, third-generation leader has more recently appeared in photos meeting with world leaders such as President Donald Trump amid diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to give up its nuclear weapons.
The report didn’t provide details about the weapon tested, and it didn’t appear to be the type of nuclear device or long-range missile frequently fired by the North last year as it sparred with Washington over its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has often used weapons tests and brinkmanship in trying to increase its leverage in negotiations.
Kim “supervised a newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon test,” KCNA said in a brief report that contained none of the fiery rhetoric of similar announcements in the past.
“After seeing the power of the tactical weapon, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un was so excited to say that another great work was done by the defense scientists and munitions industrial workers to increase the defense capability of the country,” it added.
The report said the weapon system had been in development since his late father, Kim Jong Il, was in power.
A senior South Korean official played down concerns about the test, saying it shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that Kim Jong Un is abandoning talks.
“It’s clearly something that we should watch carefully,” the official was quoted as saying by the Yonhap News Agency. “But it’s still early to view this as a change of heart in terms of the North Koreans’ intention to have denuclearization talks.”
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said it was still analyzing the report and had no further comment.
The Trump administration has cited the North’s decision to halt missile and nuclear tests as evidence of progress in nuclear negotiations, but experts have pointed out the communist state could resume the tests at any time.
The test comes at a pivotal time in the diplomatic offensive, which began earlier this year and led to an unprecedented summit between Trump and Kim on June 12 in Singapore when they agreed to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Talks have stalled since that historic moment as the two sides toughen their stances. Pyongyang seeks a more reciprocal approach that would include rewards such as the easing of punishing sanctions while Washington insists it will maintain economic pressure on the North until it sees concrete results.
Planned talks between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol were canceled last week, but Trump has expressed optimism about a second summit with Kim Jong Un next year.
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who oversees relations with the North, expressed hope that the talks would be rescheduled soon.
He said it’s important to provide North Korea with motivation to denuclearize but acknowledged that “until we see actual progress on denuclearization, sanctions will be maintained.”
Cho, who spoke Thursday at a forum at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., also urged both sides to have more patience.
“It is too early to expected the U.S. and North Korea to establish trust after 70 years of hostility,” he said. “There is a huge gap in their perspectives, and they lack mutual understanding.”
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