North Korea conducted a test for solid missile fuel on Thursday, a capability which could shorten launch preparation times, making detection more difficult.
Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Kim Jong Un directed the test, which focused on a “jet of high-power solid-fuel rocket engine” and missile stage separation.
“The test was aimed to examine the structural safety of the rocket engine newly designed and manufactured by the Korean style and its thrust and estimate the working specifications of heat separation system and other system,” the English version of the KCNA article reads.
The result satisfied “all scientific and technological indexes,” it added.
The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper unveiled pictures of the test on the same day. Jonathan McDowell from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said the images show a typical procedure for a solid fuel test.
“It looks a bit on the small side, but it could be a test of a motor for one of the stages of KN-08,” McDowell told NK News.
The KN-08, also known as the Hwasong-13, is thought to be a long-range missile capable of reaching the U.S. west coast. First appearing in 2012, Rodong Sinmun published pictures of the KN-08’s warhead on March 9.
“When the KN-08 reappeared in 2015, it looked completely different from the ones from 2012 and 2013, showing technical developments,” Kim Dong-yup, professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told Yonhap TV on Monday.
David Schmerler, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, also told NK News that it seems to belong to the “second stage of larger missile system.”
“It is possible that the second stage test was conducted with the end of the first stage attached to the motor being tested to see how their designed stage separation would work,” Schmerler said, adding the engine’s diameter would have to be measured to make a firmer conclusion.
North Korea was known for using solid fuel for short-range missiles like the KN-02 and FROG, but it’s the first time that it claims to use solid fuel for middle or long-range rockets.
Seoul’s Ministry of Defense (MND) said the North’s solid fuel development is ongoing, according to spokesperson Moon Sang-gyun on Thursday.
“We’ve predicted North Korea will develop solid fuel and are now preparing countermeasures,” Moon told journalists at a regular press briefing.
Once it is fully developed, the preparation process becomes much simpler. “It takes about one to one and a half hours to load (a missile with) liquid fuel,” Kwon Se-jin, professor at the KAIST Department of Aerospace Engineering, told NK News.
“Solid fuel can be stored in a rocket for more than ten years and it is possible to launch anytime,” Kwon continued.
Experts believe the development of solid fuel strengthens Pyongyang’s desire to launch a missile for military purposes, rather than those required to put satellites in orbit.
“There’s no strong reason to build something like this for a satellite launcher,” McDowell said.
Kwon agreed, saying solid fuel powered rockets are sometimes used as an auxiliary tool to assist satellite launches but mostly used for missiles.
The Kill Chain, a U.S.-ROK joint preemptive strike system requires 30 minutes to contain North Korea’s missile launch capabilities. If the North’s preparation time decreases, this represents challenges for the U.S. and South Korea to improve detection speeds prior to a launch.
North Korean media outlets have unveiled numerous military related technological milestones this month, including a miniaturized warhead on March 9, re-entry technology on March 15, and multiple rocket launch tests on March 4 and 22.
The pictures published by Thursday’s newspaper clarified a message to the South Korean President Park Geun-hye. “Merciless fire thunder to the U.S. imperialism and Park Geun-hye’s faction,” the slogan behind Kim Jong Un reads.
In response, Park ordered a “full alert all over the nation” on Thursday against possible provocations from North Korea.
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun