North Korea’s claim last week that it had tested an unidentified “ultramodern tactical weapon” highlighted its desire to upgrade its conventional arms and reassure its military even as talks are under way to end its nuclear program, analysts said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un witnessed the test of a newly developed tactical weapon that could serve as a “steel wall”, state media reported on Friday, without giving details of the weapon.
It was Kim’s first observation of a weapons test this year and could complicate already stalled nuclear talks with the United States, although Washington and Seoul downplayed the development in an apparent effort not to derail negotiations.
Experts say the test was part of Kim’s initiative to shift the mainstay of the conventional military power from a nearly 1.3 million-strong army to high-tech weapons.
“This is sort of like the North Korean version of military reform,” said Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
“If we have to find an underlying message to the outside world, it’s ‘Don’t underestimate us, we are modernizing too.’”
New advanced weapons might be even more crucial if the country were to abandon at least some of its nuclear arsenal.
Although heavily-sanctioned Pyongyang is easily outspent in defense funding by Seoul and Washington, the North’s forward-deployed troops, guns and multiple-launch artillery rocket systems (MLRS) pose a significant threat to the allies.
The North Korean military has nearly 5,500 MLRS, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armored vehicles, 810 fighter jets, 430 combatant vessels and 70 submarines, according to a 2016 assessment by the South’s defense ministry.
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies said last week it has identified at least 13 undeclared missile bases inside North Korea.