North contradicts South’s missile test claims

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North contradicts South’s missile test claims


Left: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, sitting, and officials oversee the test firing of a new “large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday, as reported by state television Thursday. Right: The North’s “new-type guided ordinance rocket” is fired in a partly pixelated photograph of Wednesday’s test launch. [YONHAP]

North Korean state media on Thursday said the weapon tested a day earlier was a new rocket artillery system, contradicting South Korea’s conclusion that Pyongyang had fired two short-range ballistic missiles.

An English language report from the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally “guided a test-fire of newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system” on Wednesday, accompanied by senior munitions officials.

Pyongyang’s announcement did not jibe with South Korea’s military intelligence, which concluded that the North had fired two short-range ballistic missiles from Kalma near Wonsan on the country’s eastern coast, which flew a distance of approximately 250 kilometers (155 miles) and reached a peak altitude of 30 kilometers before landing in the East Sea.

According to the KCNA report, the launchers fired “a new-type guided ordinance rocket” that was part of the North’s “strategic policy of artillery modernization.” It added that the combat effectiveness of the rocket system was verified with Wednesday’s test, and that Kim expressed satisfaction that the new rocket “would be an inescapable distress to the forces becoming a fat target of the weapon.”

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) on Thursday stood by its earlier assessment of the test, with spokesman Col. Kim Jun-rak saying South Korean and U.S. intelligence “so far understand the [weapon fired on Wednesday] had a flight pattern similar to that of a new-type short range ballistic missile.” A Defense Ministry official also stood by the earlier assessment, saying the initial speed of the projectile resembled a ballistic missile.

Yet partly pixelated photographs released by Korean Central Television, a state broadcaster, on Thursday afternoon of Wednesday’s rocket launches showed the projectile in question looking ostensibly different from the ballistic weapons from last week, code named KN-23 by Seoul and Washington. The images appeared to be pixelated to avoid closer scrutiny by foreign analysts.

These photos, as well as the KCNA report, suggests the weapon was an advanced form of artillery rocket that has a similar trajectory but a shorter range than the KN-23 ballistic missile, which could explain why it only flew 250 kilometers while earlier tests reached up to 600 kilometers.

Recent advances in military technology have blurred the lines between projectiles filed by multiple rocket launchers, usually classified as artillery, and missiles, which have their own guidance systems. Newer rocket artillery pieces have been equipped with types of guidance systems. The KCNA report said Wednesday’s weapon was a “guided ordinance rocket,” possibly equipped with a global positioning system and a guidance mechanism, features that may have caused South Korea’s military to confuse it with the KN-23.

If the North’s official reporting is to be believed, it could mean that the country has developed its most far-reaching rocket artillery piece to date. Of the confirmed multiple rocket launchers owned by Pyongyang, the KN-09, with a caliber of 300 millimeters, is believed have the longest maximum range at 200 kilometers, enough to hit South Korea’s Army, Navy and Air Force headquarters in South Chungcheong. The projectiles from Wednesday’s test, however, surpassed this, traveling 250 kilometers.

Following the North’s last self-confirmed missile test on July 25, the South Korean military said the North’s newest ballistic weapons “did not follow the trajectory of ordinary ballistic missiles” in that they “performed a pull-up maneuver in the dive phase.”

Yet the military failed in its initial tracking of those missiles, laying bare its inadequate detection capacities, by initially announcing the first of the July 25 missiles had flown 430 kilometers and the second 690 kilometers, then correcting this assessment a day later by saying both missiles flew about 600 kilometers.

The U.S. appears to have concurred with South Korea’s initial assessment of the North’s new weapon tested on Wednesday.

Speaking to Fox Business on Wednesday, White House National Security Adviser John Bolton said the “firing of these missiles don’t violate the pledge that Kim Jong-un made to the president about intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.”

He added, “But you have to ask when the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin, as Kim Jong-un again said on June 30 he was prepared to do.”

Reuters and AP both reported that U.S. officials delivered photos of Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump’s snap summit in Panmunjom on June 30 to North Korean officials at the demilitarized zone in a secret meeting last week, at which a Pyongyang official reportedly expressed interest in resuming working-level denuclearization talks in the near future.

No date has been set for the resumption of such discussions, amid protests from North Korea over joint military exercises between Washington and Seoul slated to begin this month. Though North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho canceled a visit to this week’s Asean regional forum, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo nonetheless held out for talks with the North.

Until any such engagements are made, Pyongyang may very well step up further pressure on the United States and South Korea to add further leverage to its position.

According to South Korean lawmakers on Thursday, Seoul’s National Intelligence Service officials, including its chief, Suh Hoon, said the North may conduct yet another missile test in August, also in an effort to build up its military capacity before dialogue resumes.

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