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North Korea said Friday it had tested a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone designed to launch a “radioactive tsunami,” as its leader Kim Jong Un vowed to make his rivals “plunge into despair.”
The test of the purported new weapon was the latest in a series of simulated attacks as Pyongyang escalated its nuclear threats while the United States and South Korea held joint military exercises.
Analysts were skeptical about the extent of any new threat, but said the claims showed North Korea’s determination to showcase growing capabilities in order to strengthen its hand in dealing with the West.
The nuclear-capable drone called “Haeil” — meaning tsunami in Korean — can be deployed from the coast or towed by a ship in order to destroy naval strike groups or enemy ports, the state-run KCNA news agency reported.
It was designed to “stealthily infiltrate into operational waters and make a super-scale radioactive tsunami through underwater explosion,” KCNA said. The craft traveled at a depth of 80 to 150 meters (262 to 492 feet) for almost 60 hours, and detonated a test warhead at a target standing for an enemy port, it said.
The test was aimed at alerting the U.S. and its allies to a growing “nuclear crisis” in the region and was overseen by Kim, who was “greatly satisfied” with the results, the news agency said.
Kim “expressed his will to make the U.S. imperialists and the South Korean puppet regime plunge into despair” for conducting their joint exercises.
News of the test comes at a time of high tensions between the North Korean regime and the West, with a series of nuclear missile tests in the last week alone.
Pyongyang has accelerated the pace of tests in the past year as it seeks to project domestic and international strength amid severe economic struggles.
The country launched cruise missiles toward the sea Wednesday, according to South Korea’s military, three days after it carried out what Seoul called a simulated nuclear attack on South Korea.
North Korea’s state-run newspaper claimed Saturday that 800,000 of its citizens had joined or re-enlisted in the military to fight the U.S.
U.S. and South Korean troops completed an 11-day exercise Thursday that included their biggest field training in years.
An amphibious landing exercise that started Monday involved some 12,000 troops, 30 warships, 70 aircraft and 50 amphibious assault vehicles, South Korea’s military said.
Washington and Seoul have yet to officially comment on Thursday’s test.
On Friday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol accused North Korea of “reckless provocations.”
Daniel A. Pinkston, an expert in northeastern Asian security at Troy University in Seoul, pointed out there were many technical challenges with operating an underwater unmanned vehicle, and that North Korea may be displaying its supposed capabilities across sea and air for show, rather than any real intent.
“The thing is, how do you actually use them for anything other than a deterrent? So as soon as North Korea uses a nuclear weapon, it’s suicide, right?” he told NBC News.
“The kind of rhetoric that they use is an effort to use weapons for coercion, to compel adversaries into making concessions or lifting sanctions or ending exercises.”
Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that footage of the launch on state TV was the world’s first glimpse of the missiles.
The weapon could be similar to Russia’s Poseidon underwater drone, but questions remain, he said on Twitter.
North Korea has been preparing the underwater drone since 2012 — the politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea was first told about it in October 2021, according to KCNA.
The country has dozens of nuclear warheads, but it’s unclear whether it has mastered the technology to fit them onto the new weapons it claims to have developed.
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, told reporters at a briefing Wednesday that the U.S. would stay vigilant but that Kim did not appear poised to carry out a nuclear test.
Patrick Smith is a London-based editor and reporter for NBC News Digital.
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