SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-un’s test of what analysts said could be a new short-range guided or cruise missile shows the North Korean leader reverting to saber rattling as he seeks to end sanctions that are derailing his hopes of rejuvenating the North’s economy.
Embarrassed at home by the failure to reach a peace deal with President Trump during their recent summit meeting in Vietnam, he is struggling to regain leverage over the United States without provoking the president, analysts said on Thursday.
This week, Mr. Kim escalated pressure on Mr. Trump by resuming his visits to military units and weapons sites, which he has generally refrained from during his diplomatic engagements with the American leader.
Since the Vietnam meeting, Mr. Kim has voiced misgivings about dealing with Mr. Trump or with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, whose efforts to mediate between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump have faltered.
In a rare policy speech last week, Mr. Kim told his people not to expect sanctions relief anytime soon and to brace themselves for a “protracted” struggle against the United States. But he also said he would consider meeting Mr. Trump again if Washington offered a new deal that he could accept by the end of the year.
His visit Tuesday to a military airfield — where he watched air force pilots flying Russian-made MiG fighter jets — put a spotlight on an air force that has been hit hard by sanctions, with its warplanes grounded by shortages of fuel. In what analysts called a show of defiance against sanctions, the North Korean news media released photos of fighter jets roaring off while Mr. Kim watched.
But it was Mr. Kim’s attendance at the testing of “a new-type tactical guided weapon,” announced on Thursday, that was the clearest signal to Washington that the North’s tactics are hardening.
United States, South Korean and Japanese officials declined to comment on what type of weapon North Korea tested, saying that they were still analyzing available data. The projectile covered a short range, flying so low that it was not caught by the radar of the American military’s Northern Command, which routinely tracks North Korean missiles, said the South Korean news agency Yonhap, quoting unnamed defense sources.
The weapon was most likely a short-range guided missile, like the Israeli-made Spike missile, which flies low and usually covers only a very short distance, said Shin Jong-woo, a weapons expert at Korea Defense Forum, a Seoul-based network of military analysts.
“It’s part of the North’s efforts to improve its decrepit conventional weapons systems, now that it has completed a nuclear arsenal,” he said.
But Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, said the new weapon was apparently a short-range cruise missile.
“It is highly likely that this missile is a short-range cruise missile that can be converted to a land-to-land, air-to-land and ship-to-ship missile,” Mr. Kim said, noting that North Korea said the test was “conducted in various modes of firing at different targets.”
North Korea’s latest weapons test underscored the sensitivity around confronting North Korea’s broad arsenal of missiles. While Washington is preoccupied with North Korea’s attempt to build nuclear-tipped ICBMs, South Korea and Japan worry more about its short- and medium-range missiles. These missiles also target American military bases in the region, which serve as launching pads for American reinforcements should conflict break out on the Korean Peninsula.
Shin Won-sik, a retired three-star general in Seoul, said North Korea had never stopped trying to improve the accuracy of its short-range missiles despite Mr. Kim’s diplomatic engagement with Mr. Trump.
During a news briefing in Seoul on Thursday, a South Korean defense official dodged repeated questions from journalists seeking more information. Japanese officials were similarly reluctant to address the development.
North Korea conducted its last major weapons test in November 2017, when it launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. But Mr. Kim has since declared a moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests.
By testing a short-range tactical weapon, North Korea is playing its cards cautiously, analysts said. Mr. Kim can raise pressure on Washington with such a test but still be able to claim that he has not reneged on the moratorium.
Karl Dewey, a senior analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit, said that North Korea’s “stress on the weapon’s tactical nature” was “primarily aimed at a domestic audience, rather than signaling a shift in North Korea’s strategic approach to U.S. talks.”
But other analysts said the test was a more ominous signal aimed at Washington.
“It is a message from Kim Jong-un that he no longer trusts Trump or Moon Jae-in, and that he is ready to go his own way,” said Lee Byong-chul, another North Korea expert at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. “He is showing that there will be no buckling under or compromising under American pressure. This may well be Mr. Kim’s first step to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula.”
In a speech on Thursday at Auburn University in Alabama, Gina Haspel, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said, “I am very proud that we’ve been able to support this administration’s efforts to engage the North Koreans in a dialogue.”
“After years of failure, I do think that President Trump has shown a lot of wisdom in reaching out his hand to the North Korean leader and to suggest there might be a different future for the North Korean people,” she added.
The test by North Korea came amid news reports that Mr. Kim planned to meet President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in the far eastern city of Vladivostok next week. On Thursday, the Kremlin said in a brief statement that the two would meet this month, giving no specific date.
North Korea relies on China and Russia, which have veto power on the United Nations Security Council, to serve as a buffer against American efforts to impose more sanctions. Both China and Russia also host tens of thousands of North Korean laborers, who are an important source of badly needed hard currency for Mr. Kim’s regime. A report by the United Nations sanctions committee has accused Russian entities of involvement in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of oil and coal to help North Korea evade sanctions.
North Korea depends on China for more than 93 percent of its external trade. But with Beijing tied up by the trade war with Washington, the North Koreans may need Russian help more than ever in helping to blunt the pain of sanctions, analysts said.
“Kim doesn’t want to put all his eggs in China’s basket since there is heavy reliance on the country for North Korea’s economic livelihood,” David Kim, a research analyst at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said by email. “Kim Jong-un wants to show the U.S. that China is not their only option.”
In a further sign of its exasperation in dealing with the United States, North Korea said Thursday that while Mr. Kim’s relations with Mr. Trump remained good, negotiations could not continue unless Washington removed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from its team. It blamed his “meddling” for the breakdown of the Vietnam meeting.
“Even if talks are resumed with the United States, I hope that we can have as an interlocutor not Pompeo but someone else who is better in communication and more mature,” Kwon Jong-gun, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official in charge of American affairs, told the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.
Orignially published in NYT.