US on alert after North Korea claims it tested new command-and-control system in simulated nuclear counterstrike

Tuesday, April 24, 2024 – The secretive state of North Korea has claimed it tested a new nuclear weapons command-and-control system on Monday, April 22, with the firing of projectiles carrying simulated nuclear warheads from multiple rocket launcher units.

Leader Kim Jong Un directed the drill, which simulated a nuclear counterattack, according to a report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), following what it claimed were “extremely provocative and aggressive” annual joint air force exercises conducted by the United States and South Korea.

North Korea has tested both the rocket launcher system and a simulated nuclear counterstrike before, according to military analysts, but KCNA said Monday’s exercise was the first time the “Haekbangashoe” – or nuclear trigger – command-and-control system was used, demonstrating what it claimed was an ability to switch rocket launchers from conventional to nuclear weapons.

“They are thinking about command and control. These are the practical questions about how an order should be transmitted from Kim, down the chain of command, and to launch units,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an analyst at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defence and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the nuclear counterstrike drill showed “a desire to portray wider credibility and capability in nuclear forces proficiency and posture beyond simply demonstrating just missile delivery systems.”

But he said it was hard to determine if Monday’s exercise showed anything new.

“How mature this command-and-control system already is, or will become, remains very difficult to assess,” Dempsey added.

Since conducting its first nuclear test more than a decade ago, North Korea has advanced its weapons capabilities, with the ambition of miniaturizing a warhead so that it can fit on a long-range missile.

Kim increased those efforts in 2022, vowing to develop nuclear arms at the “highest possible” speed, passing a new law that declared North Korea a nuclear weapons state, and saying there could be no negotiations on denuclearization.

Experts say North Korea has likely already manufactured a small stockpile of nuclear warheads – but it remains unproven whether it has been able to make them small and light enough to be fitted on a missile.

Images supplied by North Korea on Monday showed four rockets being launched, with KCNA saying they hit targets on an island 352 kilometres (218 miles) away.

On Monday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the North had fired multiple short-range missiles into the waters off the peninsula’s east coast.

Kim said the exercise helped prepare North Korea’s nuclear forces for “their important mission of deterring a war and taking the initiative in a war,” according to the KCNA report.

The Kim regime has tested a series of weapons in recent months, including long-range artillery that has the South Korean capital of Seoul within its range, a hypersonic glide vehicle, which in theory could carry a warhead past South Korean and US air defences, and an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland.

Meanwhile, the US and South Korea have held frequent military exercises of their own, the latest being the two-week Korea Flying Training 2024, which began on April 12.

The exercises have so far featured about 100 warplanes from the two allies, including F-35 stealth fighters from both.

The US-South Korea exercise has “incited extreme war fever” and cannot be classified as defence or deterrence, the KCNA report said.

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