North Korea says tests a nuclear warning to South Korea, US

North Korea has said its recent barrage of missile launches were “tactical nuclear” drills personally overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, and a response to joint United States-South Korea naval exercises.

North Korea carried out its seventh launch in two weeks when it fired two ballistic missiles early on Sunday morning.

Showing the first pictures from the launches, state broadcaster KCNA reported Kim Jong Un guided the exercises, which involved ballistic missiles with mock nuclear warheads and were led by “tactical nuclear operations units”.

The various tests simulated targeting military command facilities, striking main ports, and airports in the South, KCNA added.

“The effectiveness and practical combat capability of our nuclear combat force were fully demonstrated as it stands completely ready to hit and destroy targets at any time from any location,” the report said.

“Even though the enemy continues to talk about dialogue and negotiations, we do not have anything to talk about nor do we feel the need to do so,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

Kim has long wanted to develop tactical nuclear weapons, and made it a priority at a key party congress in January 2021.

KCNA images showed a number of different types of missiles were launched from land and water [KCNA via Reuters]

The country revised its nuclear laws last month, envisaging a wide array of scenarios in which it could use such weapons, with Kim declaring North Korea an “irreversible” nuclear power.

Since then Seoul, Tokyo and Washington have held combined naval exercises, including deploying the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Ronald Reagan to the area twice, infuriating Pyongyang, which sees such drills as rehearsals for invasion.

In response, North Korea “decided to organise military drills under the simulation of an actual war … in order to check and assess the war deterrent and nuclear counterattack capability of the country,” KCNA reported.

New missiles

North Korea released multiple photographs of the recent missile launches, tests and exercises, showing Kim Jong Un dressed in a white jacket and straw hat, and sometimes in a khaki anorak, watching missiles taking off from various locations. He was also shown meeting smiling soldiers and, standing alongside his wife, with his hands over his ears.

Unusually, state media did not report the tests as usual the day after they had taken place.  Analysts said releasing them now would be a “patriotic” headline for Monday’s holiday to mark the founding of the ruling party and serve as a warning to its rivals.

“Pyongyang has been concerned about military exercises by the U.S., South Korea and Japan, so to strengthen its self-proclaimed deterrent, it is making explicit the nuclear threat behind its recent missile launches,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul said in emailed comments. “The KCNA report may also be harbinger of a forthcoming nuclear test for the kind of tactical warhead that would arm the units Kim visited in the field.”

The missiles in the photos included short-range ballistic missiles that included KN-25 and KN-23 types as well as one with a heavy 2.5-tonne payload, as well as a KN-09 300mm Multiple Launch Rocket System.

Analysts said the images also appeared to show the development of a new intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).

The last two weeks of launches saw North Korea send an IRBM over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean for the first time in nearly five years, and the farthest it had ever sent a missile.

South Korea has said Pyongyang could carry out its first nuclear test since 2017 as soon as this month.

North Korea also said it had carried out “a large-scale combined air-attack drill”, also overseen by Kim, in which it said “more than 150 fighter planes of different missions took off simultaneously for the first time in history”.

Kim Jong Un in white jacket and straw hat with his military commanders watching a missile launch.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was shown watching missile launches at a number of locations [KCNA via Reuters]

Seoul’s military said it had scrambled 30 fighter jets on Thursday after 12 North Korean warplanes staged a rare “formation flight north of the inter-Korean air boundary [and] conducted air-to-surface firing drills”.

“Kim probably wants to tell the US and South Korea that any demonstrations of alliance solidarity and readiness will be in vain,” Rand Corporation analyst Soo Kim told the AFP news agency.

“We probably won’t see North Korea backing down anytime soon, and from all appearances, it appears the allies may not fold easily this time, either.”

The US and South Korea held joint maritime exercises involving the USS Ronald Reagan on Friday, after the aircraft carrier was redeployed in the wake of the IRBM test over Japan.

The two Koreas remain technically at war because the 1950-1953 Korean war ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.

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