North Korea says it tested crucial new rocket launch system

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Thursday leader Kim Jong Un supervised the first test firing of a new multiple rocket launcher system that could potentially enhance its ability to strike targets in South Korea and U.S. military bases there.

The report by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on Thursday differed from the assessment by South Korea's military, which had concluded Wednesday's launches were of two short-range ballistic missiles.

The launches from the eastern coastal town of Wonsan were North Korea's second weapons test in less than a week and were seen as a move to keep up pressure on Washington and Seoul amid a stalemate in nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang has also expressed anger over planned U.S.-South Korea military drills.

KCNA said Kim expressed satisfaction over the test firing and said the newly developed rocket system would soon serve a "main role" in his military's land combat operations and create an "inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon."

The report didn't directly mention the United States or South Korea, but experts say the rocket system, along with new short-range missiles the North tested last week, could potentially pose a serious threat to South Korea's defense. North Korea places thousands of rocket launchers and artillery pieces near its border with South Korea, and its perceived ability to quickly devastate the Seoul metropolitan area, where about half of South Koreans live, has long been a central part of its strategy to deter military action from its rivals.

The agency provided no specific descriptions of how the "large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system" performed, but said the test confirmed the system's technical characteristics and "combat effectiveness." North Korea's state media didn't immediately release images of the test.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday that the weapons it then assessed as missiles flew about 250 kilometers (155 miles) at an apogee of 30 kilometers (19 miles), a range that would be enough to cover the region surrounding Seoul and a major U.S. military base just south of the city.

Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies and a former South Korean military official, said the North might have tested an improved version of its 300-millimeter multiple rocket launcher system or an entirely new system, such as a 400-millimeter system.

When asked whether it failed to distinguish between multiple-rocket launchers and ballistic missiles, Kim Joon-rak, an official from the JCS, said Thursday the South Korean and U.S. militaries currently share an assessment that the flight characteristics from Wednesday's launches were similar to North Korea's new short-range missiles tested last week. He said further analysis was needed to identify the weapons.

South Korea's military had said the flight data of the missile launched last week showed similarities to the Russian-made Iskander, a short-range, nuclear-capable missile that is highly maneuverable and travels on lower trajectories compared to conventional ballistic weapons.

Choi Hyun-soo, spokeswoman of Seoul's Defense Ministry, refused to answer when asked whether it's possible that the North might have mixed in a ballistic missile launch while testing its new rocket system.

In a closed-door briefing to lawmakers, officials from South Korea's National Intelligence Service said North Korea might continue its weapons tests in August, according to lawmaker Lee Eun-jae, who attended. The spy agency believes the North would want to demonstrate its displeasure over the planned U.S.-South Korea military exercises and the South's acquisition of advanced weapons systems such as F-35 fighter jets while also speeding up its weapons development before it gets deeper in nuclear negotiations with the United States, Lee said.

U.S. officials have downplayed the threat of the launches to the United States and its allies.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to discuss the latest launches behind closed doors Thursday at the request of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, council diplomats said.

Analysts say North Korea with its consecutive weapons tests is demonstrating its displeasure with the pace of nuclear diplomacy with Washington. The North's testing activity could intensify if the negotiations do not proceed rapidly over the next few months, said Srinivasan Sitaraman, a North Korea expert at Clark University in Massachusetts.

By firing weapons that directly threaten South Korea but not the U.S. mainland or its Pacific territories, North Korea also appears to be testing how far Washington will tolerate its bellicosity without actually causing the nuclear negotiations to collapse, other experts say.

Since the collapse of a summit between Kim and Trump in February over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament, the North has significantly slowed diplomatic activity with the South while demanding Seoul to break away from Washington and proceed with joint economic projects that have been held back by U.S.-led sanctions against the North.

Last Thursday, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles that Seoul officials said flew 600 kilometers (370 miles) and as high as 50 kilometers (30 miles) before landing in the sea. North Korea's state media said those tests were supervised by Kim and were designed to deliver a "solemn warning" to South Korea over its purchase of high-tech, U.S.-made fighter jets and the planned military drills, which Pyongyang calls an invasion rehearsal. The North had last tested short-range missiles on May 4 and 9.

Earlier last week, Kim visited a newly built submarine and expressed his satisfaction with its weapons system. North Korea said its deployment was "near at hand."

In a private briefing to lawmakers Wednesday, South Korean military intelligence officers said they've determined that the submarine likely has three launch tubes for missiles, according to Lee Hye-hoon, head of parliament's intelligence committee. If confirmed, it would be North Korea's first operational submarine with missile launch tubes, some experts said.

North Korea acquiring the ability to launch missiles from submarines would be an alarming development because such missiles are harder to detect in advance.