By Jack Kim / SEOUL (Reuters) –
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country has miniaturized nuclear warheads to mount on ballistic missiles and ordered improvements in the power and precision of its arsenal, state media reported on Wednesday.
Kim has called for his military to be prepared to mount pre-emptive attacks against the United States and South Korea and stand ready to use nuclear weapons, stepping up belligerent rhetoric after coming under new U.N. and bilateral sanctions last week for its nuclear and rocket tests.
U.S. and South Korean troops began large-scale military drills this week, which the North called “nuclear war moves” and threatened to respond with an all-out offensive.
Kim’s comments were his first direct mention of the claim, made repeatedly in state media, to have successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, which has been widely questioned and never independently verified.
“The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying as he inspected the work of nuclear scientists, adding “this can be called a true nuclear deterrent”.
“He stressed the importance of building ever more powerful, precision and miniaturized nuclear weapons and their delivery means,” KCNA said.
Responding to the KCNA report, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Katina Adams, repeated a call on North Korea to “refrain from provocative actions and rhetoric that aggravate tensions.”
Kim also inspected the nuclear warhead designed for thermo-nuclear reaction, KCNA said, referring to a miniaturized hydrogen bomb that the country said it tested on Jan. 6.
Rodong Sinmun, official daily of North Korea’s ruling party, carried pictures of Kim in what seemed to be a large hangar speaking to aides standing in front of a silver spherical object.
They also showed a large object similar to the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) previously put on display at military parades, with Kim holding a half-smoked cigarette in one of the images.
South Korea’s defense ministry said after the release of the images that it did not believe the North has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead or deployed a functioning ICBM.
That assessment is in line with the views of South Korean and U.S. officials that the North has likely made some advances in trying to put a nuclear warhead on a missile, but that there is no proof it has mastered the technology.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking by telephone to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, described the situation on the Korean peninsula as “very tense” and called for all parties to remain calm and exercise restraint, China’s foreign ministry said.
North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6 but its claim to have set off a miniaturized hydrogen bomb has been disputed by the U.S. and South Korean governments and many experts.
Following on from the U.N. sanctions, South Korea on Tuesday announced further measures aimed at isolating North Korea by blacklisting individuals and entities that it said were linked to Pyongyang’s weapons program.
China also stepped up pressure by barring a North Korean freighter from one of its ports. But a U.N. panel set up to monitor sanctions under an earlier Security Council resolution adopted in 2009 said in a report released on Tuesday that it had “serious questions about the efficacy of the current U.N. sanctions regime.”
North Korea has been “effective in evading sanctions” by continuing to engage in banned trade, “facilitated by the low level of implementation of Security Council resolutions by Member States,” the Panel of Experts said.
“The reasons are diverse, but include lack of political will, inadequate enabling legislation, lack of understanding of the resolutions and low prioritization,” it said.
Chinese-Made Trucks Used for Mobile Artillery Transport
North Korea is using Chinese-made trucks in a new mobile artillery system showcased five days ago, according to photographs reviewed by Reuters, underlining the difficulty in enforcing U.N. sanctions against the isolated state.
North Korea’s Multiple Rocket Launcher System (MRLS) may be able to operate outside the range of similar U.S. and South Korean weapons, according to an expert.
In photographs published by North Korean state media, the vehicle used in the MRLS artillery battery has the bodywork and some markings of a Chinese-made Sinotruk HOWO truck, which is widely available commercially and is used by North Korea in its mining and construction industries.
Last week, the United Nations Security Council imposed harsh new sanctions on North Korea for pursuing a nuclear program following a resolution drafted by the United States and Pyongyang’s ally, China.
An MRLS is a kind of rocket-propelled artillery system capable of firing a barrage of rockets at a target. It is usually mounted on the back of a tank-like chassis, or a truck, and the vehicles do not need much modification. “You just need a launch tube that you mount on the truck,” said Markus Schiller, a rocketry expert based in Germany. “It’s almost as easy as mounting a machine gun”.
China’s Foreign Ministry, asked about the trucks, said the government has consistently followed U.N. resolutions. “China will strengthen its strict controls,” spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing in Beijing.
Calls to Sinotruk’s headquarters in the northern Chinese city of Jinan went unanswered. North Korean media showed leader Kim Jong Un observing the test-firing of the MRLS at an event where he ordered his country to be ready to use its nuclear weapons at any time.
On Wednesday, Kim said the country had miniaturized nuclear warheads to be mounted on ballistic missiles, his first direct comments on a claim that had been previously made in the country’s state media but has yet to be independently verified.
Many experts have questioned whether the North has the know-how to mount a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a missile and complete a functioning weapons system. The rockets fired by the new MRLS are at the “upper-end” of range estimates of its kind, according to Jeffrey Lewis of the California-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies, writing for the 38 North website that analyses events in North Korea.
The increased range reduces their vulnerability to counter-battery fire by South Korean or U.S. artillery, according to Lewis.
In South Korea, a U.S. artillery brigade carried out live fire drills on Wednesday, launching a barrage of rockets close to the border town of Cheorwon.
Recent photos obtained by Reuters showed a civilian version of the Sinotruk – a bright red dumpster – with North Korean registration plates at a Chinese-North Korean border crossing. North Korean state media has in the past released images of the same Sinotruk HOWO truck chassis and cabin in propaganda related to construction or mining.
The Chinese government uses a military model of a Sinotruk HOWO off-road truck for its own MRLS, according to the 38 North website. Since 2006, it has been against U.N. sanctions to ship military hardware into North Korea but control of equipment and vehicles into the North that have commercial use has been far less stringent.
It is not clear if North Korea’s military uses the commercial or military version of the Sinotruk HOWO vehicle, but the isolated country has a history of importing Chinese heavy-duty civilian vehicles and using them for military purposes.
A U.N. panel said in a report released on Tuesday that vehicles carrying multiple rocket launchers seen at a parade in Pyongyang last year were nearly identical to trucks made by a Chinese company. It did not name the company.
According to the report, China told the panel that the company had “put a clear clause that the buyer agrees and ensures that this batch of trucks exported to (North Korea) should only be used in civilian activities” and that the sales contract says “the buyer shall use the trucks solely for forest area operations and timber transportation.”
In 2010, North Korea’s forestry ministry wrote in a statement to China that six large off-road trucks later spotted in a military parade carrying the KN-08 ballistic missile were bought to transport timber, according to a document in a 2013 United Nations Panel of Experts report.
“I am sure that China will say, like the with the KN-08 transporters, that North Korea provided a false civilian end-use,” Lewis told Reuters.
A salesman for a company advertising civilian and military models of the Sinotruk HOWO cabin and chassis on Chinese online retailer Alibaba said the truck’s strong body would make it ideal for military use, but it was not able to sell the military version of the same truck.
“The military trucks only can be sold by the government,” the salesperson said. “What we are offering is used for normal transportation”. It was listed for sale between $50,000-$60,000.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and James Pearson in Seoul, Jessica Macy Yu in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry, Nick Macfie, Grant McCool)