North's latest ICBM launch may be a Hwasong-15 in disguise
U.S. and South Korean intelligence believe the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched by North Korea on Thursday was actually a Hwasong-15 missile disguised to look like the newer, larger Hwasong-17, according to South Korean military sources.
Speaking to the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity on Sunday, a military official said Friday that the allies were “closely analyzing” the missile fired by the North, but added that they “placed more weight on the possibility that it was a Hwasong-15 missile,” not a Hwasong-17 missile as claimed by the North’s state media.
According to the official, U.S. and South Korean analysis of the missile in question revealed it had two engine nozzles, like the Hwasong-15 that was test-fired in 2017, instead of the Hwasong-17, which has four nozzles. The engine combustion time of the first-stage rocket was also similar to that of the Hwasong-15.
The analysis was based on data from the allies’ intelligence assets, including from a U.S. military reconnaissance satellite equipped with infrared thermal sensors.
South Korean military intelligence also believe that the video released Friday by the North of the purported Hwasong-17 launch was actually earlier footage edited and cobbled together from previous tests of the Hwasong-17-type missiles.
Military authorities explained that while the missile fired Thursday, which traveled 1,080 kilometers (miles) and reached an apogee of over 6,200 kilometers, flew farther than the Hwasong-15 missile that flew some 960 kilometers and topped out at 4,500 kilometers in the 2017 launch, it could also have been capped with a lighter warhead to fly like the longer-range Hwasong-17.
This explanation did not, however, mesh with the conclusion by outside observers and Seoul’s own spy agency, which suspects that the test involved a Hwasong-17 missile.
In an interview with Voice of America (VOA) released Saturday, former U.S. State Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Vann Van Diepen said that the data on Thursday’s missile released by Seoul and Tokyo showed it had a trajectory closed to the Hwasong-17 than the Hwasong-15.
Another South Korean defense official who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo on condition of anonymity said that the country’s military should “reconsider the South Korean missile defense system (KAMD) from the ground up in light of North Korea’s increasingly diverse and advanced missile capabilities” and that the military “should not evaluate North Korea's threats but demonstrate its ability to assuage public anxiety.”
Concerns are also growing that the North’s latest ICBM launch could be a precursor to a nuclear test by the recalcitrant regime as its self-imposed moratorium on provocative nuclear and longer-range missile tests, which came into effect in late 2017, appears effectively scrapped.
Pyongyang has carried out six known nuclear tests since 2006, with the last test being conducted at the Punggye-ri testing site in North Hamgyong Province in September 2017.
Although the North staged the demolition of Punggye-ri before world media in 2018, blowing up tunnels at the underground testing site with a pledge to halt all nuclear tests, satellite imagery in recent months shows that the regime could be working to repair the test site.
According to unnamed South Korean military and intelligence sources, the North is focusing on restoring one of the tunnels leading into the mountainous underground site.
“(The North) abruptly stopped its initial construction work to restore the entrance to Tunnel 3, and it is digging up the side (of the tunnel),” the source said. “In this way, it seems like it will be possible to restore (the facilities) in a month.”
Meanwhile, the United States on Friday called for stronger action from the United Nations Security Council at a rare public meeting of the body in response to the North’s latest ICBM test.
“The Security Council must speak publicly and with one voice to condemn the DPRK's unlawful actions and encourage the DPRK to return to the negotiating table,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during the council meeting, which was broadcast live, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Russia swiftly opposed the U.S. call for enhanced sanctions on North Korea, saying it will create “unacceptable socio-economic and humanitarian problems” for the people of North Korea.
Thomas-Greenfield, however, criticized the Security Council for its silence while the North “has escalated its provocations with impunity,” adding that “remaining silent in the hope that the DPRK would similarly show restraint is a failed strategy.”
BY MICHAEL LEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]