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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said on Monday that it’s unlikely that North Korea has developed the technology for atmospheric missile re-entry and that additional verification is required before Seoul can confirm DPRK state media’s claims about its Sunday missile test.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Monday that the country had successfully test-fired a “ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket” – named the Hwasong-12 – on Sunday.
Pyongyang said the launch was carried out at the “highest angle” and was aimed at assessing the “tactical and technological specifications” of the missile.
The Hwasong-12 reportedly reached an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers (1,312 miles) and flew 787 kilometers (489 miles) and “accurately hit the targeted open waters,” according to KCNA.
JCS said U.S. and South Korea intelligence authorities had confirmed the DPRK’s claims on altitude and flight distance.
“The North’s claim on the confirmation of the reliability of the engine and technical characteristics are required to be further verified,” JCS spokesperson Roh Jae-cheon told media during a regular news briefing.
JCS also dismissed the North’s argument that the country had “verified the homing feature of the warhead under the worst re-entry [scenario] and accurate performance of detonation system.”
When asked whether the North had mastered missile technology for atmospheric re-entry, the JCS spokesperson said that “our understanding is that there is a low possibility.”
The technology – which allows a nuclear weapon to survive the heat and pressure of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere – is a key element needed in an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which North Korea has pledged to test this year.
“Given that the missile reached an altitude of over 2,000km, a test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile must have been conducted, of course,” Kim Dong-yub, a Professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES), Kyungnam University, told NK News.
Kim said Pyongyang may have tested an atmospheric re-entry of the missile, given the high altitude of the launch and recent improvements to North Korea’s rocket engine, reported by state media on March 19.
“But it is difficult to assess whether this was successful,” Kim said, as the DPRK had not tested whether the missile could be detonated after it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.
Describing it as a “newly developed ballistic rocket,” KCNA also said the missile is capable of “carrying a standardized nuclear warhead as well as a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.”
Kim said the standardized nuclear warhead – which was used in the country’s five test on September 9 – has an explosive power of around 10 kilotons.
“A large-size heavy nuclear warhead has a larger explosive power, suggesting that Pyongyang may conduct another nuclear test soon,” Kim said.
Kim Min-seok, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum (KODEF), said the missile launched on Sunday intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) had a maximum range of around 5,000 km, but that it was unclear whether the missile launched on Sunday was a first-stage or second-stage missile.
“If it’s a single-stage missile, it’s very surprising because the missile with the similar size was produced as the multi-stage missile,” Kim Min-seok told NK News, adding that the KN-08 is a three-stage ballistic missile.
The missile used on Sunday is believed to be the same to have featured in a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung last month, and has features resembling the Hwasong-13 (also KN-08) which was unveiled at a military parade marking the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, 2012.
Some have suggested that North Korea has upgraded the KN-08.
“There is a possibility that the North produced a single-stage missile after a series of failures at the separation of stages,” Kim said. “And we may see that Pyongyang has test-fired the first stage of what could be a multi-stage ICBM.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification (MOU) said on Monday it would be “inappropriate to publicly comment” on Sunday’s test-firing and that the South Korean government “needs to build a lot of relations and hold talks.”
“There will be a discussion over the sanctions against North Korean on May 16 at the UN,” Lee Duk-haeng, a spokesperson for the Unification Ministry, told assembled reporters at a regular briefing. “There is a common perception that the North’s nuclear and missile provocations pose a serious threat to the peace and security of the international community beyond the Korean peninsula.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Rodong Sinmun