Stakes for dialogue high: KIDA

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Stakes for dialogue high: KIDA

North Korea may attempt to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying multiple warheads if denuclearization negotiations fail, said South Korea’s leading defense institute in a new report.

Titled “A Forecast for 2020 Security Environment and Policy Suggestions for National Defense,” the report from the government-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA) contained a grim outlook for the Korean Peninsula in the event dialogue collapses, claiming North Korea would seek to check U.S. military pressure by doubling efforts toward attaining strike capacity against the United States.

This could take the form of continued development of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), as well as an ICBM with multiple warheads, the report said.

“Of course, if [Pyongyang] test launches a means to attack the United States, this will strengthen U.S. policy toward the North and provoke further sanctions, so North Korea is likely to start by focusing on developing its new-type submarine displayed in Oct. 2019 and the Pukguksong-3, or possibly a long-range rocket test through the launch of a satellite,” the report added.

ICBMs with multiple warheads are known as multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV) weapons which almost all nuclear powers in the world possess or are suspected of possessing. Such missiles can strike multiple targets or launch decoys that can mislead enemy missile defense systems.

When North Korea tested its Hwasong-15 missile, the first ICBM developed by the North purportedly able to reach almost the entirety of the U.S. mainland, in November 2017, analysts speculated that the weapon may have been intentionally overbuilt - in terms of the missile’s large nose cone in particular - to accommodate the installation of an MIRV system in the future.

While KIDA, which operates under the purview of Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense, has put out bleak diagnoses on North Korea’s ICBM program before, this is the first time a government-based think tank in South Korea formally raised the possibility of an MIRV from the North.

Pyongyang is simultaneously believed to be building a submarine capable of carrying ballistic missiles in order to vastly enhance its strike range.

The principle behind these drives, analysts say, is similar to the Cold War rationale that impelled both France and Britain, for example, to operate their nuclear arsenals entirely in the form of SLBMs, given their geographic limitations in maintaining land-based missiles vulnerable to enemy strikes.

In October, the North conducted an underwater launch of its new Pukguksong-3 SLBM, which is believed to have a solid-fuel engine and a maximum range of around 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles).

The regime’s tests on Dec. 7 and Friday at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province, are also believed to be part of a wider effort to transition from liquid-fuel to solid-fuel based rockets, given Pyongyang’s announcement that the “very important” tests would change its “strategic position” and provide a nuclear deterrent.

In a regular briefing session, South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Monday said it was closely cooperating with Washington to track and monitor the North’s key test sites including Tongchang-ri, adding it could not yet disclose Seoul’s conclusions about Friday’s test since it was currently under “detailed analysis.”

The ministry’s spokesperson, Choi Hyun-soo, also denied local press reports alleging that South Korea and the United States were considering another combined military exercise for March, saying the allies were in agreement that drills be carried out under the principle that they support diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

With tensions at their peak since the beginning of dialogue, Seoul may be attempting to sidestep any movement that could be construed as a provocation by Pyongyang, which has set the year’s end as a deadline for diplomatic talks on its nuclear program.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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