North Korea Missile Test -

Image courtesy North Korea state media

North Korea Missile Test May
Be New Type of Rocket

| published May 14, 2017 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor

Despite more than a week of talk in which all sides seemed to be cooling the rhetoric, and with the possibility of talks between the United State and North Korea, Pyongyang launched a new type of ballistic missile early Sunday, according to the militaries of the U.S. and South Korea.

Though the specific type of missile is not yet known by military or intelligence agencies in the west or in South Korea, sources in the Pentagon say that the rocket tested could be a new design. U.S. Pacific Fleet Command told the press that although the rocket’s path and launch vector was not consistent with a long-range missile, the engine use in the test again indicates North Korea’s desire to develop missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The missile was launched from North Korea’s rocket site at Kusong, in the northwest, and military analysts in South Korea and Japan say the missile traveled roughly 440 miles before crashing in the waters off the coast of North Korea not far from eastern Russia.

Notable among the details of this launch was the missile’s unusually high trajectory; the missile reached an estimated altitude of 1,200 miles, and remained aloft for more than 30 minutes. Though the test launch may have been intended to gauge the missile’s ability to reach high altitudes, its real purpose may have been to test its range. Military and intelligence experts in Japan and South Korea concur that if launched at a lower trajectory, the same missile may be able to traverse a distance of more than 3,700 miles.

Sunday’s test launch came only days after elections in South Korea produced a newly-elected leader who campaigned on a platform which included the start of reconciliation with the North. Incoming President Moon Jae-in, sworn-in just this week, met with his top security and military experts on Sunday to discuss the matter, meetings which his press spokesperson detailed and intensive. South Korea characterized the latest missile test as a “clear violation” of U.N. resolutions and guidelines.

This latest missile test may, at least temporarily, derail Moon’s efforts at open discussion, understanding and possible reconciliation between North and South.

North Korea and South Korea have been bitter enemies since the end of the Korea War, at which time the peninsula was divided between a Communist regime in the north and a pro-American government in the south. The resulting two countries have faced off for decades across a narrow demilitarized zone along the 38th Parallel, on either side of which resides some of the most heavily weaponized contingents in the world.

Despite resolutions and decrees by the United Nations against such weapons testing, and despite heavy economic sanctions on the north by almost every country in the world, North Korea has been accelerating both its missile program and its nuclear weapons testing. Pyongyang has also ramped up its rhetoric and its calls for more weapons testing in the wake of recent annual military drills and exercises, conducted jointly by the U.S. and South Korea. Last month, the Pentagon sent a carrier group into the waters near the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang has made no secret in recent years—and most especially under the regime of its young leader Kim Jong-un—that its goal is to develop the technology to send nuclear warheads anywhere within the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately to deploy missiles capable of reaching the U.S. Some weapons analysts believe that North Korea may already have the approximate capability to send rockets as far as Hawaii, though North Korea has not yet been able to cross the all-important threshold of combining compact nuclear warheads with its missile technology.

But Sunday’s test was also notable for where the missile landed in the waters of the northeastern part of the Korean Peninsula; the location of its splashdown means that this rocket was fired closer to Russia than any other projectile tested by North Korea to date. Though Russia has not been considered a patron of North Korea (indeed, China has for decades been generally viewed as North Korea’s only serious ally), foreign policy experts had in recent days concluded that growing tension between Beijing and Pyongyang could lead North Korea into a budding relationship with Moscow. According to some analysts, this new missile test may alter even that possibility.

North Korea has been consistently defiant and isolated over the last decades, especially when asked to tamp down its weapons programs and its nuclear testing. Despite a brief thaw in the late aught years, third-generation dynastic leader Kim Jong-un has proven both aggressive as well as unpredictable, often in open violation of U.N. bans on weapons testing and missile tests. Kim has repeatedly threatened war with South Korea and with the United States, and Pyongyang media has—in recent months—threatened Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines with preemptive attack if those nations continue to back pro-U.S. policies.

President Donald Trump has said that the U.S. cannot allow North Korea to reach the technological stage where it is able to combine nuclear warheads with intercontinental ballistic missiles. The White House released a statement, saying that it “cannot imagine Russia is pleased” considering how close the rocket’s impact point was from Russian soil.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is in Beijing this week for a conference, was informed of the North Korean missile test soon after it occurred. Putin’s press spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that both Russian and Chinese leaders had engaged in an immediate discussion about Pyongyang’s actions and the growing tensions in the region.

North Korea’s rapid succession of major missile tests in the last six months has not come without some failures. At least four tests included misfires, duds or explosions, including a test only weeks ago in which an ICBM—possibly equipped with a newer type of engine—disintegrated only a few seconds after it ascended from the launch pad. But rocket and missile experts point out that in any fledgling program, especially in which no patron nation is providing technical support or technological knowhow, such failures are considered not only routine, but perhaps even necessary to move forward.

For its part, China offered words of reprimand to North Korea, but also stressed that other countries should intensify neither the rhetoric nor the military build-up.

“China opposes relevant launch activities by North Korea, [especially] those contrary to Security Council resolutions,” read the statement from the office of China’s foreign minister.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Australia, New Zealand Fire Back After North Korea Issues Threats; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; April 23, 2017.

North Korea Missile Test Ends in Immediate Failure; Thursday Review staff writers; Thursday Review; April 16, 2017.