North Korea has broken its silence on its missile tests

(CNN) — North Korea’s state media has broken its silence on the country’s recent series of missile tests, saying they were part of a series of simulated procedures designed to demonstrate the country’s readiness to launch tactical nuclear warheads at potential targets in South Korea.

Kim Jong Un’s regime has tested ballistic missiles seven times since Sept. 25, the latest of 25 cruise and ballistic missile launch events this year, according to a CNN count, raising tensions to their highest level since 2017.

A North Korean missile test is shown in an image released by state media on Monday.

Citing leader Kim Jong Un, who led the drills, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the tests, which coincided with nearby military exercises between the United States, South Korea and Japan, showed Pyongyang was ready to respond to regional tension by involving its “vast armed forces”.

KCNA said the series of seven drills by North Korea’s “tactical nuclear operations units” showed that its “nuclear combat forces” were “fully prepared to attack and destroy established targets at designated locations at designated times.”

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program and a professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, said North Korea’s announcements on Monday indicated potential progress in its missile program.

“What I find remarkable is that these launches are not designed to be tests of the missiles themselves, but of the units that launch them. This assumes these systems are deployed,” Lewis said on Twitter.

What is North Korea testing?

KCNA said on September 25 that North Korean workers took part in drills in a silo under a warehouse to practice what it described as the loading of tactical nuclear warheads to verify the safe and rapid transportation of nuclear weapons.

North Korea firing a missile is seen in a photo released by state media on Monday.

Three days later, they simulated loading a tactical nuclear warhead onto a missile that would be used in the event of war to “neutralize airfields in South Korea’s operational areas.”

On October 6, North Korea practiced procedures that could launch a tactical nuclear attack on “the enemy’s main military command facilities” and the enemy’s ports on Sunday, state media in Pyongyang said.

Among the key military installations in South Korea is the US Army’s Camp Humphreys, the largest US military installation outside the United States with a population of more than 36,000 US military personnel, civilian workers, contractors and family members.

Experts say North Korea is likely to have developed several nuclear warheads: “20 to 30 warheads that will be delivered primarily by intermediate-range ballistic missiles,” Hans Christensen and Matt Korda of the Fed’s Nuclear Information Project wrote in September. nuclear weapons. American scientists .

But their ability to detonate them right on the battlefield is unproven.

Analysts noted that with Monday’s reports, North Korea broke a six-month silence on its testing program. Previously, the message and images of the tests were available the next day.

Leif-Erik Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, said Pyongyang had “multiple motives” for making Monday’s announcement.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a military exercise on Oct. 8 in a photo by North Korean state media.

In addition to providing a “patriotic headline” for domestic consumption on the 77th anniversary of his ruling party, “he is explicitly laying out the nuclear threat behind his recent missile launches,” Easley said.

“The KCNA report may also be a harbinger of an upcoming nuclear test of the type of tactical warhead that will arm the units Kim visited in the field,” he said.

South Korean and US officials have warned since May that North Korea may be preparing for its first nuclear test since 2017, with satellite images showing activity at its underground nuclear test site.

US response

The KCNA report said the recent drills from September 25 to October 9 were designed to send a “strong warning of military response to enemies” and to test and improve the country’s combat capabilities.

In the report, Kim called South Korea and the United States “enemies” and said North Korea should not negotiate with them.

Kim also stressed that Pyongyang will closely monitor the military movements of enemies and “resolutely take all military countermeasures” if necessary, KCNA said.

The United States, South Korea and Japan have been active with military exercises during the North’s recent series of drills.

A picture by North Korean state media released on Monday shows a missile launch.

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, according to a statement from US Navy Task Force 70.

“Our commitment to regional security and the protection of our allies and partners is demonstrated by our flexibility and adaptability in moving this strike group to where it is needed,” said Michael Donnelly, commander, Task Force 70/Carrier Strike Group 5.

On Sunday, South Korea’s National Security Council “strongly condemned” North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches and said its military would further strengthen its combined defense and deterrence posture through joint military exercises with the U.S., the U.S. and trilateral cooperation in security area including Japan.

Japan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the security environment around the country was becoming “increasingly difficult” and that exercises with the US Navy strengthened the alliance’s ability to respond to threats.

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