North Korea says it’s successfully tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile, and says it met all technical requirements and can now be mass-produced, although US officials and experts are questioning the extent of its progress.
The US, which has condemned repeated North Korean missile launches, says Sunday’s launch of what North Korea dubbed the Pukguksong-2 was of a “medium-range” missile, and US-based experts doubted the reliability of the relatively new solid-fuel type after so few tests.
US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the test did not demonstrate a new capability, or one that could threaten the US directly. But the test was North Korea’s second in a week and South Korea’s new liberal government said it dashed its hopes for peace.
US officials have been far less sanguine about the test of a long-range KN-17, or Hwasong-12, missile just over a week ago, which US officials believe survived re-entry to some degree.
North Korea said that launch tested the capability to carry a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead” and put the US mainland within “sighting range.”
Western experts say the Hwasong-12 test did appear to have advanced North Korea’s aim of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the US mainland, even if it is still some way off from achieving that capability.
The UN Security Council is due to meet on Tuesday behind closed doors to discuss Sunday’s test, which defies Security Council resolutions and sanctions.
Washington has been trying to persuade China to agree to new sanctions on North Korea, which has conducted dozens of missile firings and tested two nuclear bombs since the start of last year.
US President Donald Trump has warned that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea is possible over its weapons programmes, although US officials say tougher sanctions, not military force, are the preferred option.
North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, said the latest missile test was supervised by leader Kim Jong Un and verified the reliability of Pukguksong-2’s solid-fuel engine, stage separation and late-stage guidance for a nuclear warhead. It said data was recorded by a device mounted on the warhead.
“Saying with pride that the missile’s rate of hits is very accurate and Pukguksong-2 is a successful strategic weapon, he (Kim) approved the deployment of this weapon system for action,” KCNA said.
“Now that its tactical and technical data met the requirements of the Party, this type of missile should be rapidly mass-produced in a serial way …, he said.”
South Korea’s military said the missile flew about 500 kilometres and reached an altitude of 560 kilometres.
It said the test would have provided more “meaningful data” for North Korea’s missile programme, but further analysis was necessary to determine whether Pyongyang had mastered the technology needed to stop the warhead burning up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
US-based experts said the Pukguksong-2 would have a maximum range of about 1,500km and questioned North Korea’s assertion that the reliability of the solid-fuel missile had been proven, given limited testing.
“Entering mass production at this early in the development phase is risky, but perhaps a risk North Korea feels comfortable managing,” said Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.