North may have tried switcheroo in ICBM test
A U.S. official said North Korea may have tested a modified version of a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last Thursday, echoing the views of South Korean military officials that the missile in question was not the newer Hwasong-17.
The official, who spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity, said that the missile tested Thursday appeared to be a modified version of the Hwasong-15, an older and smaller model than the Hwasong-17.
The official told the Post that the missile was modified to fly higher and farther than the last ICBM North Korea tested in 2017. The official added that the latest launch shows the North is making incremental progress in improving its ICBM capability.
Those views were expressed earlier by a South Korean military official who told the JoongAng Ilbo on Sunday 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.
While the missile fired Thursday, which traveled 1,080 kilometers (671 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, South Korean military authorities believe it could also have been capped with a lighter warhead to fly like the longer-range Hwasong-17.
Non-governmental observers have also expressed their doubts about Pyongyang’s purported test of a Hwasong-17 ICBM.
“North Korea’s version of events is misleading at best, and possibly a complete fabrication of a successful Hwasong-17 test at worst,” wrote Colin Zwirko, senior analyst at the Seoul-based North Korea-monitoring website NK News.
Thursday’s test was the latest in a flurry of missile tests by the regime this year.
While the North described missile launches on Feb. 25 and March 5 from Sunan Airfield near Pyongyang as tests for a military reconnaissance satellite system, South Korean and U.S. officials said the launches were preliminary tests of a large new ICBM system.
Under successive United Nations Security Council resolutions, the North is barred from conducting any ballistic missile tests, including satellite launches, which employ the same technology.
U.S. and South Korean officials are also discussing the possibility that the failure of the missile test conducted by the North on March 16 is tied to Thursday’s ICBM test.
The weapon launched in that test exploded shortly after take-off after reaching an altitude of less than 20 kilometers (12 miles). North Korea’s state media notably did not release any information on that test.
According to the Washington Post, U.S. and South Korean officials are discussing the possibility North Korea disguised a modified Hwasong-15 as the newer Hwasong-17 on Thursday, eight days after the test of the newer missile ended in failure.
BY MICHAEL LEE [email@example.com]