North Korea announced on Thursday that it had test-fired a new type of tactical guided weapon, in its first public weapons test since February’s failed summit with the US in Hanoi.
Shortly after the test, North Korea demanded that Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, be removed from nuclear disarmament talks in another sign of deteriorating diplomatic relations with Washington since the failure of their second summit in Hanoi in February.
Pyongyang wanted a replacement for Mr Pompeo who would be “more careful and mature,” the North’s state media reported on Thursday, accusing the senior US official of undermining negotiations.
Adding to the stand-off, the Kremlin yesterday announced that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un later this month, an apparent attempt to insert Russia into the delicate talks.
The firing of the unspecified weapon, which was personally overseen by Kim from an observation post, was a possible attempt to express dissatisfaction with Washington’s refusal to budge over sanctions, without jeopardising the future of the currently deadlocked diplomatic talks.
It is not believed to have been a banned ballistic missile test, a provocative move which could have torpedoed negotiations with South Korea and the US over North Korea’s disarmament.
One South Korean analyst told the AP that the North’s state media report indicated it could have been a test of a new type of cruise missile. Pak Jong-chon, an artillery official, was also reportedly at the site.
Vipin Narang, a North Korea expert and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Telegraph that it might have been an anti-tank guided missile, a multiple launch rocket system or another system related to coastal or air defence.
If it was, “it would seem to be consistent with Kim potentially reminding both the US and ROK [South Korea] - in a calibrated way - where things could go if the US especially doesn’t moderate its negotiating position,” he said.
The test is part of a broader pattern of events since talks collapsed between Kim and Donald Trump, the US President, over mismatched demands from North Korea over sanctions relief and from the US over the speed of Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament.
The weapons test followed a visit by Kim to the North Korean Air and Anti-aircraft Force on Tuesday to express “great satisfaction” at their combat readiness.
Pyongyang's request to remove Mr Pompeo from negotiations presents Donald Trump, the US president, with the dilemma of whether to cave in to North Korea’s rejection of his lead negotiator or to stand firm and risk the total collapse of talks to persuade Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.
The stinging rebuke was conveyed to the state-run Korean Central News Agency by Kwon Jong-gun, a senior foreign ministry official, who claimed that the summit showed that when Mr Pompeo “pokes his nose in, talks between the two countries go wrong without any results.”
"I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled," Mr Kwon, director general of the ministry's American affairs department, said, in remarks translated by South Korea’s Yonhap agency.
"Therefore, even in the case of possible resumption of the dialogue with the US, I wish our dialogue counterpart would not be Pompeo but another person who is more careful and mature in communicating with us," he added.
The sudden cold shoulder treatment of Mr Pompeo, who has travelled to Pyongyang several times over the past year to personally meet with the North Korean leader, is being viewed as part of Kim’s strategy to project his strength to Washington and his domestic audience.
The North Koreans have accused Mr Pompeo of playing down the significance of comments by Kim during a meeting of his rubber-stamp parliament last week when he gave Washington an end of year deadline to offer mutually acceptable terms to salvage deadlocked nuclear talks.
Meanwhile, recent satellite images obtained by the US-based Centre for Strategic Studies show movement at the North’s main nuclear site of Yongbyon that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel.
Just days after the end of the summit, satellite images also suggested increased activity at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station at Tongchang-ri, which Pyongyang had previously pledged to dismantle.
“With rebuilding Sohae, continued activity at ballistic missile facilities and Yongbyon, and this, Kim seems to be suggesting ‘I’ve loaded my gun, but I am not going to fire... just yet’,” said Mr Narang.
The state-controlled Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) did not give an exact description of the new weapon but reported that Kim said "the development of the weapon system serves as an event of very weighty significance in increasing the combat power of the People’s Army."
It added that it had a “peculiar mode of guiding flight” and “a powerful warhead.”
In November, Kim oversaw the test of another unidentified “tactical weapon” which could protect North Korea like a “steel wall”, which experts said was part of his initiative to shift to high-tech weapons.
However, he has not breached his pledge in April 2018 to stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which he said at the time was because Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities had been “verified.”
Mintaro Oba, a former state department official who focusses on Korea, said North Korea was unlikely to take action that would be perceived as a very serious escalation.
During a speech at his rubber-stamp parliament on Friday, Kim set an end of year deadline for Washington to offer mutually acceptable terms for a deal, suggesting he is willing to continue along a diplomatic route.
“There are two possibilities here. One, that North Korea did this as a calculated escalation of tension to put pressure on the United States,” said Mr Oba.
“Or two, Kim Jong-un needed to demonstrate strength domestically given the lack of diplomatic progress. It's always tempting to view everything North Korea does as tactical, but we always have to consider whether there are internal factors at play as well.”
The White House and the Pentagon said they were aware of the report but had no further comment.
Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair for the Hudson Institute, said the US might react with tough statements and the tightening of sanctions, but only in a “cosmetic” way.
He suggested that Kim might be trying to tap into the US domestic political agenda as Washington gears up for the Thursday disclosure of Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election meddling and obstruction of justice.
“In a strange way you could say that he is maybe reaching out to the president at a time when the Mueller report is going to be released and he is offering the president a mini-crisis to resolve,” said Mr Cronin.