North Korean state media has broken its silence over the country’s recent spate of missile tests, claiming they were part of a series of simulated procedures intended to demonstrate its readiness to fire tactical nuclear warheads at potential targets in South Korea.
The Kim regime has tested ballistic missiles seven times since September 25, the latest of 25 launch events of ballistic and cruise missiles this year, according to a CNN count, raising tensions to their highest level since 2017.
Quoting leader Kim Jong Un, who oversaw the drills, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the tests, which coincided with nearby military drills between the United States, South Korea and Japan, showed Pyongyang was ready to respond to regional tensions with by involving its “huge armed forces.”
KCNA said the series of seven drills of North Korea’s “tactical nuclear operation units” showed that its “nuclear combat forces” are “fully ready to hit and wipe out the set objects at the intended places in the set time.”
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said North Korea’s announcements Monday indicated potential progress in its missile program.
“What I find notable is that these launches are not framed as tests of the missiles themselves, but rather of the units that launch them. That suggests these systems are deployed,” Lewis said on Twitter.
What was North Korea testing?
KCNA said on September 25, North Korea workers took part in exercises within a silo under a reservoir to practice what it described as loading tactical nuclear warheads to check the swift and safe transportation of nuclear weapons.
Three days later, they simulated the loading of a tactical nuclear warhead on a missile that in the event of war that would be used in “neutralizing airports in South Korea’s operation zones.”
On October 6, North Korea practiced procedures that could initiate a tactical nuclear strike on “the enemies’ main military command facilities” and, on Sunday, enemy ports, Pyongyang’s state media said.
Among the key military installations in South Korea is the US Army’s Camp Humphreys, the largest US military installation outside of the United States with a population of more than 36,000 US servicemembers, civilian workers, contractors and family members.
Experts say that North Korea has likely manufactured some nuclear warheads – “20 to 30 warheads for delivery primarily by medium-range ballistic missiles,” Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in September.
But its ability to detonate them accurately on the battlefield is unproven.
Analysts noted that with Monday’s reports, North Korea broke six months of silence on its testing program. Before that, an announcement and images of the tests were usually made available the next day.
Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said Pyongyang had “multiple motivations” for making an announcement Monday.
Besides providing a “patriotic headline” for domestic consumption on the 77th anniversary of its ruling party, “it is making explicit the nuclear threat behind its recent missile launches,” Easley said.
“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,” he said.
South Korean and US officials have been warning since May that North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear test since 2017, with satellite imagery showing activity at its underground nuclear test site.
The KCNA report said the recent drills, from September 25 to October 9, were designed to send a “strong military reaction warning to the enemies” and to verify and improve the country’s fighting capabilities.
In the report, Kim called South Korea and the United States “the enemies” and said North Korea doesn’t need to hold talks with them.
Kim further emphasized that Pyongyang will thoroughly monitor enemies’ military movements and “strongly take all military countermeasures” if needed, KCNA stated.
The United States, South Korea and Japan have all been active with military exercises during the North’s recent wave of drills.
A US Navy aircraft carrier strike group participated in several days of bilateral and trilateral exercises with South Korean and Japanese units that ended Saturday, a statement from the US Navy’s Task Force 70 said.
“Our commitment to regional security and the defense of our allies and partners is demonstrated by our flexibility and adaptability to move this strike group to where it is needed,” said Rear Adm. Michael Donnelly, commander of Task Force 70/Carrier Strike Group 5.
South Korea’s National Security Council on Sunday “strongly condemned” North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches, and it said the South Korean military will further bolster its combined defense posture and deterrence through joint military drills with the US and trilateral security cooperation involving Japan.
Japan’s Joint Staff said the security environment around Japan was becoming “increasingly severe” and that drills with the US Navy were strengthening the alliance’s capability to respond to threats.