North Korea launches a volley of rockets
While the tests have heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula and increased concerns globally, it is unclear whether they violated United Nations (UN) resolutions banning the testing of ballistic missiles by the North.
According to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), one of the country’s state mouthpieces, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally gave the launch order while supervising the tests at a military base near Wonsan, in the North’s Kangwon Province, on Saturday. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said several rounds of projectiles were fired from this location in a northeasterly direction into the East Sea between 9:06 a.m. and 9:27 a.m.
After analyzing the launches in greater detail, Seoul’s Defense Ministry added on Sunday that the projectiles appeared to be fired from several multiple rocket launchers with calibers ranging from 240 millimeters to 300 millimeters, and that some of them could be the “new-type tactical guided weapon” that the North’s state media described on Sunday and on April 17, when the country first claimed it had test fired such a weapon.
The ranges of these rocket launchers are from 70 kilometers (43 miles) to 240 kilometers, according to the ministry, which said Kim likely supervised the drill at a distance from an observation post.
The KCNA English-language report said the purpose of the drill was “to estimate and inspect the operating ability and the accuracy of striking duty performance of large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons by defense units […] and to more powerfully arouse the entire army to the movement for becoming crackshots with the drill as an occasion and thus put it at combat readiness posture all the time.”
Video footage of the tests released by KCNA showed not only the 240-millimeter and 300-millimeter launchers but also a projectile being launched vertically from a transporter erector launcher (TEL). The projectile appears to be the new tactical weapon.
According to South Korean military analysts, the weapon in question could be a North Korean variation of the 9K720 Iskander, a short-range ballistic missile imported from Russia and first displayed by the regime mounted on TELs at a military parade in Pyongyang last February.
Saturday’s launches could be a follow-up to a test firing of the system conducted by Pyongyang on April 17. The country’s state media described the projectile as being “outfitted with a type of guidance system” and the “load of a powerful warhead.”
The Iskander system is known to be able to carry two guided missiles fitted with warheads with a range of 500 kilometers, meaning it can reach any point on the Korean Peninsula.
Yang Wook, weapons of mass destruction head researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a nonprofit organization composed of military experts in South Korea, said Iskander missiles “fly at a low altitude that can nullify the effects of Thaad [the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antimissile system] and Patriot missile defense systems,” and possess a number of “guidance mechanisms that raise precision.”
Russia first developed the weapon in the late ’90s to fly at an altitude of 50 kilometers - lower than regular ballistic missiles - to avoid interception by U.S. missile defense systems. Some Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) utilize such “eccentric ballistic” technology, which allows the missiles to fly at low altitudes before diving toward their targets.
According to sources in South Korea’s military, the North recently imported the weapons system from Russia and modified it to suit its own needs.
The South’s Defense Ministry on Sunday refrained from verifying whether the tactical weapons drill involved ballistic missiles, which are explicitly banned under UN Security Council Resolution 1874, adopted in June 2009. A violation could warrant further sanctions on the country’s already greatly weakened economy.
Analysts say the testing of the projectiles, which state media did not refer to as ballistic, is likely aimed at dialing up the pressure on U.S. President Donald Trump to compel compromise in their denuclearization negotiations rather than endanger the process entirely.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, JEONG YONG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]