North’s new missile might be able to reach U.S.North Korea is preparing to launch an upgraded missile with a range that can possibly reach the U.S. mainland, a high-ranking South Korean government official told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, on Wednesday.
“The North is working hard to test the rocket engine,” the source said, “in addition to a construction project to extend a launch tower at a missile facility. There was intelligence that Kim Jong-un as National Defense Commission First Chairman ordered the launch of an artificial satellite, so we believe the launch will take place before October.”
North Korea celebrates the foundation of its ruling Workers’ Party on Oct. 10 as an important political event, and this year marks the 70th anniversary, fueling speculation about a series of provocations in October.
In the past, the North has used its space program as an excuse to test long-range missiles.
In December 2012, it announced it had successfully put a satellite into orbit with Unha-3, a three-stage rocket with a range of at least 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles).
“I am not at liberty to discuss the timing and number of attempts, but the North conducted at least two engine combustion tests during the first half of this year,” the official said. “Taking into account the scope of the tests, the new rocket will be larger than Unha-3 and it will have a range of about 10,000 kilometers.”
The South Korean intelligence authorities said the rocket engine tests took place at an arms research institute in Sanum-dong of Ryongsong District in northern Pyongyang and the Tongchang-ri Missile and Space Launch Facility near the Chinese border.
An engine combustion test takes place on the ground to confirm the operation of a booster for a missile or a rocket, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies had earlier said the North conducted four engine combustion tests last year.
South Korean authorities suspect the North is preparing a launch of a rocket upgraded from the Unha-3.
After its successful launch of the Unha-3, the state media said the country would continue to bolster its capability by building more rockets with longer ranges under the slogan, “Go for Unha-9 at one burst!” Photos of a model of the Unha-9 missile were featured in the North’s state-run newspaper.
The North is also moving missile components produced at arms factories near Nampo to the Tongchang-ri facility in Cheolsan-gun of North Pyongan Province, for assembly. More frequent movements of trucks near the Tongchang-ri launch site were detected recently, another government source said.
The North also upgraded a launch tower at the Tongchang-ri site. The facility originally had a 50-meter launch tower.
Construction is almost complete on a nearly 70-meter tower. Once the construction is complete, the North will be capable of firing a missile with a longer range and a heavier payload.
Construction work at the base, from which the North fired the Unha-3 in 2012, started in late 2013, a South Korean official told local media.
The North also will likely stage other demonstrations of military prowess.
The Ministry of National Defense has said the North is preparing a large-scale arms parade at Mirim Airport in Pyongyang. Various weapons systems, including SCUD and Rodong missiles and 240-millimeter rocket launchers and armored vehicles, have been brought to the airport for the event.
During a national defense policy consultation meeting hosted by Vice Minister Baek Seung-joo on Friday, the ministry said the parade is aimed at strengthening Kim Jong-un’s control over the country.
The ministry also said that there was a high possibility of an armed provocation around the time of the Oct. 10 anniversary.
“The nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, Kilju County of North Hamgyong Province, is maintaining its readiness to conduct a test,” the ministry said. “The construction project to upgrade the missile launch pad at the Tongchang-ri base is expected to be completed before October.”
The Kim regime has been consistently improving its missile capabilities. In May, the North announced it had successfully fired a missile from a submarine while leader Kim watched firsthand.
A submarine capable of launching a ballistic missile is a security nightmare for not only Seoul but also Washington and Tokyo, although military experts said the North’s program is at an early stage and operational deployment is still years away.
During a recent press roundtable in Seoul, Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, expressed concerns about the North’s programs.
“Even if [the submarine launch] was a photo shoot, there was a desire to pursue that capability and that is very destabilizing. So we need to approach it as if it is real,” Swift said.
In its latest Defense White Paper, Japan also stressed the growing threats of the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
The 2015 white paper issued on Tuesday discussed the North’s SLBM test in May and the increasing risk of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, based on its efforts to extend its missiles’ range and miniaturize nuclear arms.
The North also recently completed a military facility on Gal Island near the western inter-Korean border and deployed artillery.
The island is only 4.5 kilometers away from Yeonpyeong Island and the North deployed four 122-milimeter self-propelled artilleries. The same guns were used to shell Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010.
BY SER MYO-JA, JEONG YONG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]