Key Point: North Korea on May 4, 2019 test-fired a short-range ballistic missile -- its first major launch in the 18 months since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un suspended missile testing ahead of a summit with U.S. president Donald Trump.
Pyongyang on May 9, 2019 launched a second “projectile,” South Korean officials said.
The May tests of at least one apparently nuclear-capable short-range missile startled foreign observers and threatened to elevate tensions between the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan on one side and, on the other side, North Korea and its main patron China.
But a less dramatic test of North Korea’s heavy artillery that occured at the same time as the May 4 rocket launch arguably is more important.
“On May 4, under the watchful eye of Kim Jong Un, North Korea launched a series of projectiles featuring two types of large-caliber, multiple launch rocket systems and a new short-range ballistic missile,” Michael Elleman wrote for 38 North, a North Korea-focused think tank associated with the Washington, D.C.-based Stimson Center.
“A few days later, North Korea released photographs of tested projectiles, which provides a basis for preliminary evaluations,” Elleman continued. “The 240-millimeter and 300-millimeter diameter MLRS systems are not new to North Korea, nor do they alter the country’s battlefield capabilities.”
It’s true that Pyongyang long has operated large-caliber artillery systems. But Elleman is wrong to downplay the significance of the May 2019 artillery test. That’s because North Korea’s roughly 13,000 artillery pieces arguably pose a greater immediate threat than do Pyongyang’s nukes to South Koreans and Americans living in South Korea.
In firing the artillery at the same time as it launched a ballistic missile, North Korea reminded the world of its enormous conventional firepower. North Korea previously tested, in November 2018, upgrades to its non-nuclear artillery.