Nuclear Arsenal

North Korea Confirms Missile Launch, Pledges to Strengthen Nuclear Arsenal

North Korea has conducted a test launch of a tactical ballistic missile equipped with a “new autonomous navigation system,” state media reported on May 18. Leader Kim Jong Un supervised the Friday launch into the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, aiming to assess the “accuracy and reliability of the autonomous navigation system,” according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The launch marks the latest in a series of increasingly sophisticated tests by North Korea, which has recently fired cruise missiles, tactical rockets, and hypersonic weapons, as the U.N.-sanctioned, nuclear-armed nation seeks to enhance its defenses.

The test came just hours after Kim’s influential sister, Kim Yo Jong, dismissed accusations from Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang is supplying weapons to Russia for use in its conflict with Ukraine.

South Korea’s military described the launch as involving “several flying objects presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles” from North Korea’s eastern Wonsan area into nearby waters. The suspected missiles traveled approximately 300 kilometers (186 miles) before landing in waters between South Korea and Japan, according to Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

KCNA reported on Saturday that the test fire verified the accuracy and reliability of the autonomous navigation system, and leader Kim expressed “great satisfaction” with the launch.

In a separate report on May 18, KCNA detailed Kim’s visit to a military production facility the previous day, where he urged for the continuous and rapid enhancement of the nation’s nuclear capabilities. He emphasized that adversaries would only refrain from provocation upon witnessing North Korea’s nuclear combat readiness. KCNA noted that North Korea’s nuclear force is set to undergo significant changes and attain an elevated strategic status upon the completion of its munitions production plan by 2025.

Amid accusations from Seoul and Washington of arms shipments to Russia, in defiance of U.N. sanctions, Kim Yo Jong denied any intentions of exporting North Korean military technology. She stated the country’s priority is to perfect the war readiness and deterrent capabilities of its army. She accused Seoul and Washington of misleading public opinion with their allegations.

The launches coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China, aimed at bolstering crucial trade ties and garnering support for his war efforts in Ukraine. Ahn Chan-il, a defector-turned-researcher, suggested that North Korea’s tests were likely intended to capture Putin’s attention while he was in China. He noted the potential benefits for North Korea from a prospective visit by Putin to Pyongyang, positing that North Korea seeks to serve as a military logistics base during Russia’s ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, criticized China and Russia for their handling of North Korea, arguing that their actions, influenced by new Cold War dynamics, are encouraging Pyongyang’s nuclear armament. He highlighted the deterioration of inter-Korean relations, with Pyongyang designating Seoul as its “principal enemy,” dismantling reunification agencies, and threatening war over even minimal territorial infringements.

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