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(News Focus) N. Korea seen closer to ICBM, boosted by new missile engine

2017/05/15 14:27

By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) -- The success of North Korea's latest missile test apparently represents another milestone in its missile program, especially in terms of the stated goal of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), experts here said Monday.

Pyongyang announced that it succeeded in test-firing what it calls the Hwasong-12, a newly developed mid-to-long-range rocket, on Sunday.

It "accurately hit" its targeted waters 787 kilometers away after flying to a maximum altitude of 2,111.5 km, according to the state news agency KCNA, an announcement verified by South Korea, the U.S. and Japan sharing relevant data.

But it kept sensitive information on the rocket's velocity a secret.

South Korean military authorities regard it as a single-stage intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) based on a new type of liquid-fuel engine.

If combustion chambers are clustered and multiple stages are used, it would be capable of flying for far longer.

North Korea test-fires a new mid-to-long-range rocket, which it calls the Hwasong-12, on May 14, 2017, in these photos released by Pyongyang's state media a day later. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (KCNA-Yonhap) North Korea test-fires a new mid-to-long-range rocket, which it calls the Hwasong-12, on May 14, 2017, in these photos released by Pyongyang's state media a day later. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (KCNA-Yonhap)

David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, also cited the flight time of half an hour and the reported apogee of the tested projectile.

"If that same missile was flown on a standard trajectory, it would have a maximum range of about 4,500 km," he wrote on the group's blog.

It means the missile itself could have not only Guam but also Alaska within range if launched from the North's east coast.

The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) sought to reassure Americans in the mainland worried about the North's threat.

"The type of missile is being assessed and the flight was not consistent with an intercontinental ballistic missile," it said in a statement issued hours after launch.

Few doubt, however, that the secretive nuclear-armed North has again pulled off a significant technological advance in its missile ambitions.

"Compared with the past, it marks quite an improved level," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "North Korea has demonstrated that it can strike the U.S. mainland with missiles."

   In fact, the new IRBM is seen as a prologue to an ICBM with a range of over 5,000 km. It's a bridge between Musudan-class missiles with a range of around 4,000 km and ICBMs.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un celebrates the successful test-launch of a new missile on May 14, 2017, in these photos provided by the North's state media. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (KCNA-Yonhap) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un celebrates the successful test-launch of a new missile on May 14, 2017, in these photos provided by the North's state media. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (KCNA-Yonhap)

The KCNA quoted the North's leader Kim Jong-un, attending the missile test, as warning that the U.S. "should not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK's sighting range for strike."

   The news agency used the acronym for the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in the English-language report.

Although some of the North's assertions may be a bluff, one thing is clear -- its missile technology is progressing quickly.

Observers took note of Pyongyang's statement, dated on March 18, of a successful ground test of a new-type high-thrust rocket engine test.

Kim called it a "revolutionary breakthrough" for the nation's space program, the KCNA reported at that time.

The claim followed a series of failed tests of missiles based on an engine for Musudan.

North Korean military officials apparently lost trust in the Musudan's engine and endeavored to upgrade it. It is viewed as a turning point for the North's missile development.

What's more surprising is the pace of technological headway.

As to the March 18 announcement, many scientists here said it would take at least a year for the North to put the indigenous missile engine into actual operation.

But it did so in just two months.

Especially noteworthy is the North's talk of satisfactory pressure control, which is among the most difficult technical aspects.

But the North is not without technical hurdles in its pursuit of developing ICBMs and combining it with nuclear weapons.

The one-time success in the test of the new missile does not guarantee its stabilization.

Many also agree that the North has yet to master the "atmospheric re-entry" technology for an ICBM.

The Hwasong-12 is estimated to have a top speed of between Mach 15-24, short of the top speed of Mach 24 of typical ICBMs.

That's because the North has continued, and will continue, to test delivery means for nuclear bombs in consideration of technical needs rather than for such political reasons as a specific timing or a quest for a bargaining chip.

lcd@yna.co.kr

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