By Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) -North Korean leader Kim Jong Un observed the test firing of a new type of tactical guided weapon aimed at boosting the country's nuclear capabilities, the North's KCNA state news agency reported on Sunday.
The report comes amid signs North Korea could soon resume nuclear testing according to South Korean and U.S. officials and after Kim broke a self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing with a launch last month.
South Korea's military said on Sunday it had detected two projectiles launched on Saturday from the North's east coast towards the sea. The projectiles flew about 110 km (70 miles) with an apogee of 25 km and maximum speed of less than Mach 4, indicating they were short-range missiles.
The KCNA report gave no details on the launch but linked it to the North's nuclear objectives.
"The new-type tactical guided weapon system ... 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," KCNA said.
It said Kim "gave important instructions on further building up the defence capabilities and nuclear combat forces of the country."
North Korea has been developing short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that analysts say are designed to evade missile defences and strike targets in the South.
On April 5, Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of leader Kim, said North Korea opposes war but would use nuclear weapons to strike South Korea if attacked, in a warning seen aimed at the South's incoming conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol.
Yoon spokesperson Bae Hyun-jin said there was nothing new or surprising in the North's "show of force" as a new administration comes in.
President Moon Jae-in, who will leave office on May 10, has received real-time briefings on the North's missile launch, his office said.
RESTORING NUCLEAR TEST SITE
The weapon appears to be the North's first tactical nuclear-weapons delivery system, said Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, citing indications of work to restore North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
"You don't have to be particularly imaginative to put this two and two together," Panda said.
U.S. and South Korean officials have noted activity at the Punggye-ri site which could be preparations for a test, although the timing and nature of that were unclear.
As early as 2017, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that North Korea was able to miniaturise nuclear weapons across the spectrum of its missiles, from SRBMs to ICBMs.
Kim Jong Un in January 2021 said the country was able to "miniaturise, lighten and standardise nuclear weapons and to make them tactical ones". He also outlined goals of developing other weapons such as hypersonic missiles and spy satellites, which have been tested this year.
Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the U.S.-based Center for a New American Security, said the timing could be taken as a protest against anticipated joint U.S.-South Korea military drills, which Pyongyang has long denounced as a war rehearsal.
The United States and South Korea plan to launch the annual springtime exercise on Monday for a nine-day run, South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
On Saturday the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, based in South Korea, shared photos of troops test-firing a multiple-launch rocket system, although the timing of the event was not indicated.
A U.S. Defense Department spokesperson on Sunday acknowledged the latest missile test. "We are aware of the North Korean statement that they conducted a test of a long-range artillery system," said Lieutenant Colonel Marty Meiners.
U.S. nuclear envoy Sung Kim will visit Seoul on Monday to discuss a response to the North's recent missile launches with his South Korean counterparts.
The U.S. envoy has said Washington is open to talks without preconditions but Pyongyang has rebuffed those overtures, accusing the United States of hostile policies evidenced by sanctions and military drills.
On Friday, North Korea celebrated the 110th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung.
(Reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Jack Kim, Edmund Klamann and William Mallard)