SEOUL: Kim Jong Un supervised the test-firing of a new guided weapons system to improve North Korea's "tactical nukes", state media said Sunday, capping days of celebrations surrounding the birthday of the country's founding leader. The launch was the latest in an unprecedented blitz of sanctions-busting weapons-tests this year, which included firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017. It also came just ahead of US-South Korea military training exercises-which have always infuriated Pyongyang-that were due to begin on Monday.

The "new-type tactical guided weapon... is of great significance in drastically improving the firepower of the frontline long-range artillery units and enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes," the North's official KCNA news agency reported. It said the test was successful, but did not specify when or where it took place. South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said it detected two projectiles fired late on Saturday, which flew 110 kilometers (68 miles) at an altitude of 25 kilometers, travelling at speeds of around Mach 4.

The United States was "aware of the North Korean statement that they conducted a test of a long range artillery system", a Pentagon spokesperson said, adding it was monitoring. Analysts had widely expected Pyongyang could conduct a nuclear test as part of events to celebrate Friday's anniversary of the 110th birthday of North Korea's founding leader-and Kim's grandfather-Kim Il Sung.

Expectations were heightened because of indications that Pyongyang had restarted work at one of its known nuclear testing sites. Analysts said the weapon tested over the weekend appeared to be a new short-range ballistic missile-but no less significant. "This is North Korea's first tactical nuclear weapon delivery system, it would seem," said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You don't have to be particularly imaginative to put this two and two together."

This undated handout picture shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he observes the test-fire of a new-type tactical guided weapon in North Korea. - AFP

Short-range but significant

Photos carried by the Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed a grinning Kim-surrounded by uniformed officials-applauding as he watched what it said was the test-firing of the weapon. Kim gave a military research team "important instructions on further building up the defense capabilities and nuclear combat forces," according to the KCNA report. Kim had also overseen in Pyongyang a series of events to celebrate Friday's anniversary, including a huge civilian parade, mass dance parties, and fireworks-but no military parade to show off the regime's new weapons.

At a key party congress in January 2021, Kim outlined a five-year defense development plan, calling for the development of higher nuclear technology and to make smaller and lighter nuclear weapons for "more tactical uses." The remarks signaled a return to nuclear testing and Kim's rare attendance at a launch of a short-range missile-the first in more than two years-suggested "particular significance", according to Panda.

North Korea had paused long-range and nuclear tests while Kim met then-US president Donald Trump for a bout of doomed diplomacy, which collapsed in 2019. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons six times since 2006 and touted the success of its last and most powerful one in 2017 - a hydrogen bomb with an estimated yield of 250 kilotons. Officials and analysts had widely predicted that North Korea may carry out its seventh nuclear test in the coming weeks.

Satellite imagery has shown signs of new activity at a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site, which North Korea said was demolished in 2018 ahead of the first Trump-Kim summit. "This test of a tactical nuclear delivery system comes as indicators grow of significant reconstitutive work at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site," said Panda. With a new nuclear test, experts say Pyongyang will seek to miniaturize nuclear warheads to mount on its ICBMs.

South Korean officials have said Pyongyang could still stage a military parade or carry out a weapons test on or around April 25, the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army. South Korea and the United States regularly stage military exercises, but Pyongyang has long protested the drills as a rehearsal for war. "This training is a defensive command post training using computer simulation, and there is no real military maneuver training," Seoul's Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday. - AFP