North Korea announced yesterday the successful test of a new high-precision, tactical guided missile, as the country's army threatened a "devastating" retaliation against South Korea for carrying out live fire drills near their maritime border.
The launch of the "cutting-edge" missile was watched by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to the North's official KCNA news agency, which hailed the test as a "breakthrough" in national defence capability. North Korea is not known to have any tactical guided missiles, but analysis of a recent propaganda film suggested that it may have acquired a variant of a Russian cruise missile, the KH-35.
KCNA did not specify the timing of the test, but it appeared to coincide with the firing on Thursday of what South Korea described as three short-range projectiles into the Sea of Japan, or East Sea.
The Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the North's ruling party, published pictures yesterday of the new missile being tested with Kim in attendance.
Kim reportedly stressed the weapon's importance in providing a credible "pre-emptive" strike capability.
South Korea's defence ministry related the latest test to Pyongyang's efforts to improve its large-calibre multiple rocket launching (MRL) systems.
"The MRL ranges have been extended and guidance capabilities added to the projectiles," spokesman Kim Min-seok said.
Washington said it was looking into the technical specifics to determine the threat level.
"Technically, obviously any launch of anything is problematic, is escalatory in nature, is threatening," said US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf.
On Thursday, the Korean People's Army (KPA) released a statement condemning recent South Korean live-fire exercises near their disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea. It described the drills as a "reckless provocation" and warned that frontline KPA units had rounded off preparations for a "devastating strike" in retaliation.
"All they are waiting for is the order to be given by the Supreme Command," it said.
The South's defence ministry declined to confirm any particular drills had taken place, but said routine exercises near the maritime border were common.
Some analysts have suggested that North Korea might be seeking to raise tensions ahead of an expected visit to South Korea next week by Chinese President Xi Jinping .
But others said yesterday's announcement was simply aimed at talking up the North's military capabilities as the international community seeks ways to curb Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.
KCNA said the test was carried out at a time when "attempts to isolate and suffocate us and provocations to start a war of aggression by the US and its puppets are reaching a new height".
Yun Duk-min, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, said the development of a tactical guided missile by North Korea would be an "obvious military hazard" to South Korea and the US bases it hosts.