N. Korea conducts another ‘crucial test’ at Sohae

Soldiers stand guard at Sohae. (AFP pic)

SEOUL: North Korea has conducted another “crucial test” at its Sohae satellite launch site, state media reported, as nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington remain stalled with a deadline approaching.

The announcement Saturday comes one day before US Special Envoy on North Korea Stephen Biegun is set to arrive in Seoul for a three-day visit, and after the United States tested a medium-range ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean on Thursday.

North Korea’s Chief of the General Staff Pak Jon-chon said his country was using recent tests to develop new technologies and strategic weapons.

In a case of “acute confrontation”, the United States “and other hostile forces will spend the year-end in peace only when they hold off any words and deeds rattling us”, he said in a statement carried by the government news agency KCNA.

“The priceless data, experience and new technologies gained in the recent tests … will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon … for definitely and reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the US,” he said.

A spokesman for the North’s National Academy of Defence Science said in a statement carried by KCNA: “Another crucial test was successfully conducted at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground from 22.41 to 22.48 on Dec 13.”

The “research successes” will be “applied to further bolstering up the reliable strategic nuclear deterrent” of North Korea, the spokesman added.

The statement did not provide further details on the test.

The US State Department said only that it had “seen the reports of a test, and are coordinating closely with our Korean and Japanese allies”.

North Korean frustration

Sohae, on North Korea’s northwest coast, is ostensibly a facility designed for putting satellites into orbit.

But Pyongyang has carried out several rocket launches there that were condemned by the US and others as disguised long-range ballistic missile tests.

The North is banned from firing ballistic missiles under UN Security Council resolutions, and rocket engines can be easily repurposed for use in missiles.

Frustrated by the lack of sanctions relief after three summits with US President Donald Trump, North Korea has vowed an ominous “Christmas gift” if Washington does not come up with concessions by the end of the year.

Some analysts have suggested the North may be referring to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Earlier this month the North announced it conducted what it called a “very important test” at the same site in Sohae.

“It’s very likely that the North is going to fire something on Christmas day, and they may call it a rocket system when it actually is an ICBM,” Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean defector and researcher in Seoul, told AFP.

“The tests at Sohae can be seen as a form of preparation for the launch – whatever it will be – on Dec 25.”

End-of-year deadline

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had agreed to shutter the Sohae site during a summit last year with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Pyongyang as part of trust-building measures.

Kim has also held three meetings with Trump since June 2018.

But his nuclear negotiations with Washington have been deadlocked since a summit in Hanoi broke up in February, and Pyongyang has issued a series of increasingly assertive comments in recent weeks as its deadline approaches.

The North this week criticised Washington as “foolish” for convening a UN Security Council meeting over growing concern about short-range rockets fired from the isolated state.

By arranging the meeting, Washington “decisively helped us make a definite decision on what way to choose”, North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said.

Last week, the North’s vice foreign minister warned of returning to a war of words with the US, threatening to resume referring to Trump as a “dotard” – Pyongyang’s nickname for the US leader at the height of tensions in 2017.

The comments came a day after Pyongyang said that if the US used military force against the North it would take “prompt corresponding actions at any level”.

Back in 2017 North Korea announced it successfully tested an ICBM capable of reaching Alaska.

At the recent Nato summit, Trump boasted about Washington’s “most powerful military”, adding: “Hopefully, we don’t have to use it, but if we do, we’ll use it. If we have to, we’ll do it.”