North Korea touts new 'ultramodern tactical weapon,' prepares to deport U.S. detainee
North Korea also says it will deport a Michigan man who strayed into its territory
North Korea on Friday said it will deport an American citizen it detained for illegal entrance, an apparent concession to the United States that came even as it announced the test of a newly developed but unspecified "ultramodern" weapon that will be seen as a pressuring tactic by Washington.
The two whiplash announcements, which seemed aimed at both appeasing and annoying Washington, suggest North Korea wants to keep alive dialogue with the United States even as it struggles to express its frustration at stalled nuclear diplomacy.
The North's decision to deport Bruce Byron Lowrance — it did not say why and when — matches its general push for engagement and diplomacy with the United States this year after a string of weapons tests in 2017, and a furious U.S. response, had some fearing war on the Korean Peninsula.
In May, North Korea released three American detainees in a goodwill gesture weeks ahead of leader Kim Jong-un's June 12 summit with President Donald Trump in Singapore. The three Americans returned home on a flight with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Weeks after the summit, North Korea returned the remains of dozens of presumed U.S. soldiers killed during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Unclear if threat is real
KCNA said Kim on Friday observed the successful test of an unspecified "newly developed ultramodern tactical weapon," though it didn't describe the nature of the weapon.
It didn't appear to be a test of a nuclear device or a long-range missile with the potential to target the United States. A string of such tests last year pushed always uncomfortable ties on the peninsula to unusually high tension before the North turned to engagement and diplomacy.
Still, any mention of weapons testing could influence the direction of stalled diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Washington and aimed at ridding the North of its nuclear weapons.
Experts say the weapon test was likely an expression of anger by North Korea at U.S.-led international sanctions and ongoing small-scale military drills between South Korea and the United States. It's the first publicly known field inspection of a weapons test by Kim since he observed the testing of the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile in November last year, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
"It's North Korea-style coercive diplomacy. North Korea is saying 'If you don't listen to us, you will face political burdens,"' said analyst Shin Beomchul of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Earlier this month, North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned it could bring back its policy of bolstering its nuclear arsenal if it doesn't receive sanctions relief.
Shin said the weapon North Korea tested could be a missile, artillery, an anti-air gun, a drone or other high-tech conventional weapons systems. Yang Wook, a Seoul-based military expert, said a "tactical weapon" in North Korea refers to "a weapon aimed at striking South Korea including U.S. military bases" there, so the North may have tested a short-range missile or a multiple rocket launch system.
Diplomacy has stalled since the Singapore summit, with Washington pushing for more action on nuclear disarmament and the North insisting that the U.S. first approve a peace declaration formally ending the Korean War and lift sanctions.
But Friday's report from the North was noticeably less belligerent than past announcements of weapons tests, and didn't focus on North Korean claims of U.S. and South Korean hostility. Yang said the latest North Korean test won't completely break down nuclear diplomacy, though more questions would be raised about how sincere the North is about its commitment to denuclearization.
Pence cautiously optimistic
U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, attending a Southeast Asian summit in Singapore, cited the "great progress" made on North Korea, but said more had to be done.
"Nuclear tests were taking place, missiles were flying over Japan, and there were threats and propagations against our nation and nations in the region," Pence said of the state of affairs in 2017. "Today, no more missiles are flying, no more nuclear tests, our hostages have come home, and North Korea has begun anew to return fallen American heroes from the Korean War to our soil. We made great progress, but there's more work to be done."
Pence stressed that UN sanctions had to remain enforced.
The North said the test took place at the Academy of National Defence Science and that Kim couldn't suppress his "passionate joy" at its success. He was described as "so excited to say that another great work was done by the defence scientists and munitions industrial workers to increase the defence capability of the country."
Last year's string of increasingly powerful weapons tests, many experts believe, put the North on the brink of a viable arsenal of nuclear-tipped missiles that can target anywhere in the mainland United States.
With respect to Lowrance, the Korean Central News Agency said he was detained on Oct. 16 for illegally entering the country from China. It said he told investigators that he was under the "manipulation" of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. It was not clear if the North's spelling of the man's name was correct, and past reports from Pyongyang have contained incorrect spellings.
Lowrance is believed to be from Michigan.
North Korea in the past has held arrested American citizens for an extended period before high-profile U.S. figures travelled to Pyongyang to secure the freedom of those being held. Last year, American university student Otto Warmbier died days after he was released in a coma from North Korea after 17 months in captivity.
The United States, South Korea and others have previously accused North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions.
Some foreigners have said after their release that their declarations of guilt had been coerced while in North Korean custody. Warmbier and other previous American detainees in the North were imprisoned over a variety of alleged crimes, including subversion, anti-state activities and spying.
The U.S. State Department said Friday it was "aware of reports of the release of a U.S. citizen who had been detained by the DPRK," referring to the North by an acronym for its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The department said it appreciates North Korean co-operation with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular issues for Americans in North Korea as the U.S. doesn't have a diplomatic presence there. "We have no further information to share due to privacy considerations," the department added.