North Korea said Monday that its test-firing a day earlier of a solid-fuel, medium-range missile capable of striking most of Japan was “perfect” and that the weapon was ready to be deployed “for action.”
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said leader Kim Jong Un had observed the Pukguksong-2 missile test Sunday, which had verified the reliability and accuracy of the solid-fuel engine’s operations, stage separation and late-stage nuclear warhead guidance.
The launch, it added, was recorded by a camera mounted on the missile’s warhead, and pictures of the Earth said to have been taken from the rocket from space — the first such photos released by the North — accompanied another report by state media.
“Viewing the images of the Earth being sent real-time from the camera mounted on the ballistic missile, Supreme leader Kim Jong Un said it feels grand to look at the Earth from the rocket we launched and the entire world looks so beautiful,” the KCNA report said.
The missile’s “adaptability under various battle conditions” was also tested, according to the report.
Praising the results of the test-firing as “perfect,” Kim ordered them to be “rapidly mass produced” and delivered to the Korean People’s Army’s Strategic Force, which oversees the North’s nuclear and conventional strategic missiles.
The North Korean leader was quoted as “saying with pride that the missile’s rate of hits is very accurate” and that it is “a successful strategic weapon.” Kim, the report added, also “approved the deployment of this weapon system for action.”
However, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday that while it and U.S. intelligence authorities had assessed “that North Korea secured meaningful data in advancing the reliability of its missile technology” via the launch, “the stable re-entry of the warhead needs more verification.”
Sunday’s test, the second in a week by the North, flew close to 500 km (310 miles), reaching an altitude of about 560 km (348 miles), the Japanese Defense Ministry said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday characterized the launch as a “challenge to the world.”
Pyongyang, undeterred by multiple United Nations Security Council sanctions resolutions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, continues to defy the international community with atomic and rocket tests.
Abe said the repeated missile launches “trample on the efforts by the international community” to work toward a peaceful solution to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, according to media reports Sunday.
On Monday, Japan’s top government spokesman said Tokyo would continue to heap pressure on Pyongyang both unilaterally and in conjunction with other members of the international community after the latest test.
“We will make efforts to secure the efficiency of U.N. Security Council resolutions and ensure that Japan’s unilateral sanctions will be carried out thoroughly,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.
“It is important to deepen unilateral sanctions already in place and carry them out more strictly,” he added without elaborating.
Despite the North’s several failed launches this year, the series of tests can help find smaller flaws and improve the reliability of missile systems, said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.
“North Korea has, in the past, deployed missiles with limited testing, but this seems to be changing,” he said.
The second known firing of the Pukguksong-2 on Sunday appeared to confirm that trend.
In February, the North fired one of the missiles from a mobile launcher in its first test. That launch saw it fly about 500 km into the Sea of Japan — a trajectory similar to Sunday’s firing.
The Pukguksong-2 is a land-based version of the submarine-launched ballistic missile in development. The North’s progress on this front has worried its neighbors, as the solid-fueled missile has a likely range of 1,000-2,000 km and can be moved and hidden more easily than its liquid-fueled counterpart.
The rocket also used a cold-launch system, according to KCNA.
The technology uses compressed gas to propel a missile upward before its engine ignites in midair. This method is considered safer and also makes it easier to hide from spy satellites.
Most of the missiles in North Korea’s arsenal are solid-fueled.
“For military purposes, solid-fueled missiles have the advantage that they have the fuel loaded in them and can be launched quickly after they are moved to a launch site,” David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a blog post. “By contrast, large liquid-fuel missiles must be without fuel and then fueled after they are in place at the launch site. This process can take an hour or so, and the truck carrying the missile must be accompanied by a number of trucks containing fuel. So it is easier to detect a liquid missile before launch and there is more time to attack it.”
Because liquid-fueled missiles are easier to build, that is typically where countries begin, and North Korea is “still in (the) early stages of developing solid missiles,” Wright said.
Citing “several decades” of work by France and China, he said moving from building medium-range to long-range solid-fueled missiles remains a challenge for the North.
“This is not something that will happen soon, but with time North Korea will be able to do it,” Wright said.
Kim also said Monday that his country would continue to bolster its nuclear forces and “produce better and more ‘juche’ weapons,” a reference to the country’s ideology of self-reliance.
Sunday’s event marked the 11th test-firing by the country this year, according to a database compiled by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
The North’s provocations are set to complicate plans by the new South Korean President Moon Jae-in as he looks for ways to defuse tensions on the peninsula. During his campaign, Moon had pledged to take a more moderate approach to dealing with Pyongyang.
In a statement Sunday, the South’s Foreign Ministry called the tests “reckless and irresponsible actions throwing cold water over the hopes and desires of this new government and the international community for denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea successfully launched a new intermediate-range missile on May 14 that experts see as a significant step toward mastering the technology needed to hit the continental United States with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile.
The North has bragged that the missile test was aimed at verifying its capability of carrying “a large-size heavy nuclear warhead.” That missile was believed to have flown for about 30 minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 2,000 km (1,245 miles), according to the Defense Ministry in Tokyo. It was likely conducted at a steep “lofted” trajectory, hitting the highest-ever altitude recorded by the ministry.
Experts said the missile would have flown a distance of 4,500 km if launched on a standard trajectory, enabling Pyongyang to reliably strike the U.S. Pacific island of Guam, situated 3,400 km from North Korea.
Last month, the North conducted two tests of apparent intermediate-range missiles from a site near its eastern coast, but both launches ended in failure. Another attempted missile launch on April 29 failed just after liftoff.
There has been mounting speculation that Pyongyang will conduct a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), suggested by a New Year’s Day address in which the North Korean leader claimed that the country was in the “final stages” of developing such a weapon.
Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said Sunday’s test was “another reminder that Pyongyang is bent on achieving a fully operational nuclear-missile capability regardless of the day-to-day occurrences in the world.”
She said that while the motivations for the latest test-firing was unclear, the launch still poses an early challenge to South Korea’s Moon and his coordination with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump has vowed that a launch of an ICBM by Pyongyang “won’t happen” on his watch.