Reports that North Korea has prepared two missiles, presumed to be intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), were not confirmed by Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) during a Thursday morning press briefing.
Responding to a question from a local journalist about claims Pyongyang was preparing a “new-type” of road-mobile ICBM, MND deputy spokesperson Lee Jin-woo said “until now, there is nothing confirmed about the media’s report this morning.”
But the spokesperson suggested that the North could nevertheless conduct unspecified missile launches at any time.
“As accredited news reporters are well aware of the issue, [we] are maintaining readiness under the judgement that the North can launch [a missile] at any time and any place if the North’s leadership has determined.”
Earlier on Thursday, Yonhap News, South Korea’s government-affiliated news agency, said military sources revealed that Pyongyang had “probably built two missiles presumed to be ICBMs and placed them on mobile launchers for test-firing in the near future.”
“The two missiles are estimated to not exceed 15 meters in length, making them shorter than the North’s existing ICBMs, the 19-20 meter-long KN-08 and the 17-18 meter-long KN-14” the sources told Yonhap. KN-08 and KN-14 refer to different versions of the Hwasong-13, which is either a road mobile or road transportable missile.
Later on Thursday South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper added that intelligence sources had observed missile parts – believed to be part of an ICBM but “different from a conventional Musudan missile in its length and shape” – being transported in-country.
Together, the rumors are notable due to the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on January 1 declared that “the project of test-firing an intercontinental ballistic rocket enters into the final stage.”
The remark, forming part of his annual new year’s speech, caused consternation among North Korea watchers for marking the first time Kim had made clear his intention to develop a system capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the United States mainland.
“We are at the point where an actual ICBM test is realistic,” said Scott Lafoy on Thursday about the latest news, an NK Pro contributor with expertise on the DPRK’s missile programs.
But he said the reports and official government response might – for now – simply mean that ICBM parts have been moved to an assembly point for further testing, rather than for any imminent launch.
The data points revealed in the Yonhap report were confusing, he added. “A less than 15m missile that is not a Musudan, but is identified as a possible ICBM is a weird data point.
“That could mean it actually is a new type of missile (or a modification of an existing one), a misidentified/misreported missile, or the first stage of a larger missile”.
In 2016 North Korean state media notably made a point of repeatedly showcasing emerging technologies related to its nuclear weapons and missile delivery programs.
Melissa Hanham, a Senior Research Associate at the James Martin Center of Nonproliferation Studies, said open source indicators in 2016 showed that “North Korea is in the final stages of developing an ICBM.”
Pointing to multiple state media reports, she showed that repeated engine and heat-shield tests, as well as the demonstration of a nuclear warhead, meant that “flight tests” would be next on the North’s development path.
Coming ahead of president-elect Trump’s inauguration, the reports have spurred fears that Pyongyang may welcome the new administration with a test-launch of an ICBM , something which – if successful – would put the North Korea issue in primary focus for Washington.
Main picture: Rodong Sinmun
Additional reporting: Dagyum Ji
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