North Korea said it successfully test-fired a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile that is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, the country’s state-run media said Monday. The North Korean missile flew over 500 kilometers, landing in the sea and stirring up world leaders, with the US rushing to reassure its allies South Korea and Japan.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the Pukguksong-2 strategic weapon system was successfully test-fired Sunday adding that the missile launched from a mobile launcher used solid propellants and a new high-thrust engine developed in the country. The missiles also proved it can engage in evasive maneuvers during flight, the North said which is of note following the recent US deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) in South Korea, meant to engage and intercept rogue launches by North Korea (while making China very nervous).
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests, including two last year, although its claims to be able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to be mounted on a missile have never been verified independently. KCNA said the missile was fired at a high angle in “consideration of the safety of neighboring countries” Reuters reported. A South Korean military source said on Sunday the missile reached an altitude of 550 km (340 miles).
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was present for the launch and stressed that with the Pukguksong-2, Pyongyang now has another means to deliver nuclear weapons according to Yonhap. The country has tested a total of five nuclear devices since 2006, with two being detonated last year. The missile was launched at a high angle to take the security of the neighboring countries into consideration. The test-fire proved the reliability and security of the surface launch system, and the new engine, the news agency said.
The new missile was also successfully tested for its ability to dodge interceptors with evasive maneuvers, Yonhap news agency cited the statement as saying. Another major boost for North Korean missile technology is the solid fuel engine said to be used in the new weapon. Pyongyang has been testing the engine, which would give the rockets greater range and make the launches harder to detect, over the past year. The technology was said to be tested previously in a submarine missile launch.
“Now our rocket industry has radically turned into high thrust solid fuel-powered engine from liquid fuel rocket engine and rapidly developed into a development- and creation-oriented industry, not just copying samples,” Kim was quoted as saying by the KCNA in English.
The development of the new strategic weapon system will allow the People’s Army to perform its duties most accurately and rapidly in any space: “under waters or on the land,” Kim said. The communist regime leader ordered the development of a surface-to-surface ballistic missile with extended firing range on the basis of the success made in the submarine-launched ballistic missile test in August last year, it said.
Meanwhile, as Reuters adds, despite his campaign vows to take a tougher line with North Korea, President Donald Trump’s restrained public reaction to Pyongyang’s first ballistic missile launch on his watch underscores that he has few good options to curb its missile and nuclear programs.
The responses under consideration – which range from additional sanctions to U.S. shows of force to beefed-up missile defense, according to one administration official – do not seem to differ significantly so far from the North Korea playbook followed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Even the idea of stepping up pressure on China to rein in a defiant North Korea has been tried – to little avail – by successive administrations. But Beijing is showing no signs of softening its resistance under a new U.S. president who has bashed them on trade, currency and the contested South China Sea.
More dramatic responses to North Korea’s missile tests would be direct military action or negotiations. But neither appears to be on the table – the first because it would risk regional war, the latter because it would be seen as rewarding Pyongyang for bad behavior. And neither would offer certain success.
“Trump’s options are limited,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
As noted last night, Trump’s initial public comments on Saturday on the test launch of what was believed to be an intermediate-range Musudan-class missile were unexpectedly measured – and brief – compared to earlier bluster about another U.S. adversary, Iran, since he took office on January 20. “I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, 100 percent,” Trump told reporters in Palm Beach, Florida, speaking in a solemn tone alongside visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The U.S. president did not mention North Korea or signal any retaliatory plans for what was widely seen as an early effort to test the new administration. By contrast, Trump tweeted “It won’t happen!” in January after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the North was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
While no one can rule out that Trump might still take to Twitter with harsh rhetoric as he often does, some analysts said his relatively subdued initial statement could show that aides have convinced him not to be baited by Pyongyang into issuing threats that would be hard to carry out, especially while his North Korea strategy is still being formulated. It might be a welcome change.