SEOUL/WASHINGTON – Fresh satellite images suggest North Korea might be wrapping up engine trials on an intercontinental ballistic missile, fueling speculation of a full-scale flight test to come, a U.S. think tank said Wednesday.
Development of a working ICBM would be a game-changing step, bringing the continental United States into range and adding a whole new threat level to the North’s regular nuclear-strike warnings.
“The rocket engine test program may wind down by the end of this year,” The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said on its closely followed 38 North website. “If the engine tests are concluded, the next stage in development of the KN-08 road-mobile ICBM may be full-scale flight tests of the missile.”
It stressed, however, that it was unclear just how successful the tests had been. Regular satellite analysis has shown a major construction program under way at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station since mid-2013, focused on upgrading facilities to handle larger, longer-range rockets with heavier payloads.
Although there is no doubt that North Korea has an extremely active ballistic missile development program, expert opinion is split on just how much progress it has made. Images taken this month showed the gantry height on the main launchpad had increased to more than 50 meters, while a wider access road and rail spur capable of transporting larger rockets to the pad were either finished or nearing completion.
“These modifications could be completed by 2015,” the 38 North website said.
The images also showed evidence of new engine tests, including the presence of first stage rocket motors and distressed vegetation along the edges of the flame path.
The KN08 was first unveiled at a military parade in April 2012, but many analysts dismissed the models on show as mock-ups. In December the same year, Pyongyang demonstrated its rocket capabilities by sending a satellite in orbit on a multistage launch vehicle. But it has yet to conduct a test that would show it had mastered the re-entry technology required for an effective ICBM.
Over the past month or so, North Korea has conducted a series of short and medium range missile tests, which were largely seen as a muscle-flexing exercise in response to South Korea-U.S. joint military drills.
In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional hearing that North Korea had taken initial steps toward fielding the KN-08 although it remains untested.
Assessing the intentions of North Korea’s secretive government and the nation’s technical capabilities is notoriously difficult. A mobile missile is potentially more threatening as it could be deployed more quickly and discreetly.
Experts say North Korea has probably not yet managed to miniaturize a nuclear device that it could mount on a long-range missile capable of hitting mainland America. Pyongyang has not conducted a nuclear test explosion since February 2013 despite speculation it was preparing to do so this spring. Such a test could help hone its capabilities.
Adm. Samuel Locklear told a Pentagon news conference Tuesday that he is concerned by North Korea’s frequent testing of ballistic missiles. Locklear heads U.S. Pacific Command, and his responsibilities include military relations with longtime U.S. ally South Korea.
North Korea often test-fires missiles, artillery and rockets, but the number of weapons tests it has conducted this year is much higher than previous years.
“Every time they do something that the international community has told them not to do, particularly as it relates to missile technology or nuclear technology, you have to assume that it’s a step forward in technology,” Locklear said. “Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be doing it.”
Locklear said he worries that “you become somewhat numb” to reports of another North Korean missile test, adding, “you start to say, well, it’s not such a big deal.”
Locklear said he believes North Korea has continued to make “steady progress” in both its missile technology and nuclear capability, adding that he has to “plan for the worst” of what North Korea says it has or demonstrates it might have.
Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that North Korea has been “quieter” than in the past, which he attributed to U.S. efforts to engage with Pyongyang’s only ally, China.
But in a sign of concern, the House on Monday passed a bill to toughen sanctions and restrict North Korea’s access to hard currency. The bill would empower President Barack Obama to target foreign banks that facilitate the North’s development and proliferation of weapons technology by barring them from the U.S. financial system.
Prospects for the legislation’s passage through the Senate are uncertain.