North Korea’s leader witnessed the test of a newly developed high-tech weapon, the country’s state media reported on Friday, while Pyongyang also released a US prisoner, sending conflicting signals at a time of sensitive negotiations.
Kim Jong-un’s visit to the test site of what North Korea’s state media called a “tactical weapon” that could protect North Korea like a “steel wall” threatened to sour the diplomatic atmosphere at a time when negotiations between North Korea and the United States appear to have stalled.
However, the US State Department sought to play down the development, suggesting it would not derail efforts to persuade North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons program that has the potential to threaten the United States.
“We remain confident that the promises made by President Trump and Chairman Kim will be fulfillled,” a spokesman for the US State Department said.
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At an unprecedented summit in June, US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim in Singapore agreed to work toward denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula and establish new relations. But the agreement was short on specifics, and negotiations have made little headway since.
North Korea’s KCNA news agency did not identify the weapon tested but called the test a success. The only picture released by state media showed Mr Kim standing on a beach surrounded by officials in military uniforms with no weapons visible.
The description of the weapon as “tactical” appeared to rule out larger strategic weapons, such as a ballistic missile or a nuclear bomb, which North Korea demonstrated until last year, raising fears of a new Korean war.
But testing of any new weapon threatens to raise tensions with Washington, which has upset Pyongyang by repeatedly stressing that international sanctions must remain in place until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.
A source familiar with US assessments said the United States was still evaluating the test, but was not particularly alarmed. The source said the announcement was low key by North Korean standards, suggesting that Kim did not want to stir things up too much, even while delivering a warning.
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In an apparently conciliatory gesture, North Korea also announced on Friday it was releasing an American citizen detained since October after he “illegally” entered North Korea from China.
Pyongyang identified the man as Bruce Byron Lowrance.
The State Department declined to identify the citizen and did not provide details about him. But in a statement on Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has led the US negotiating effort with North Korea, thanked North Korea and Sweden for cooperating to secure the release.
North Korea has held previous American detainees for longer, and Washington has accused Pyongyang of using them as bargaining chips.