North Korea announced the successful ground test of a new type of “high-power engine,” ostensibly for launching satellites, state media reported Tuesday, an advance that could bolster the isolated nation’s burgeoning missile program.
Leader Kim Jong Un, who oversaw the event, urged scientists and technicians to make preparations for launching a satellite “as soon as possible on the basis of the successful test,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported, a possible indication that the North may conduct a prohibited long-range rocket launch soon.
Observers have speculated that Pyongyang may mark the Oct. 10 founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea by launching a missile or satellite.
KCNA said the engine could deliver 80 tons of thrust, likely making it the most powerful the country had ever seen, and giving the country “sufficient carrier capability for launching various kinds of satellites.”
The latest test comes after more than 20 missile launches and two nuclear tests this year, as the reclusive country seeks to buttress its weapons program despite a continued international outcry. It has also carried out a series of long-range rockets launches under the guise of putting “Earth observation satellites” into orbit, most recently in February. That test angered the country’s neighbors and the United States, which called it a test of banned missile technology.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the new engine is likely to be used for long-range missiles.
In April, North Korea tested a new engine for intercontinental ballistic missiles that it said would give it the ability to stage nuclear strikes on the U.S. However, critics, including Tokyo and Washington, have questioned Pyongyang’s assertions that it has mastered the technology needed for an ICBM.
In contrast to April’s test, Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review, said the new engine could be “more powerful … than anything seen in the country before.”
“The engine tested in April appears to be the first-stage engine from the KN-08 ICBM displayed on March 9, alongside a nuclear warhead,” Pollack said, referring to the KN-08 long-range missile reportedly under development by the North.
The new engine, with a design distinctly different from April’s, “could provide the basis for a significantly larger rocket than before,” Pollack said. “This general class of very powerful liquid-fueled rocket engines was used in multiwarhead heavy ICBMs and space launchers built by the USSR.”
Pollack added that while the North Koreans have described this engine as part of a peaceful space program — not a military one — it could have more ominous connotations, given that the country has plans to actually use it in a launch.
“That will give them opportunities to identify problems and assure that it works,” he said. “For comparison, they have never actually flown the KN-08.”
Experts say rocket engines can be easily repurposed for use in missiles — a fact not lost on critics of the North’s space program, which they call a thinly veiled guise for testing military technology.
Ultimately, though, the North’s plans for their new engine may be more complicated than a simple refitting of missiles.
According to John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and expert on North Korea’s missile program, the new engine appears to use the same technology as the earlier test, but generates 40 percent to 50 percent more thrust from a single engine than the combined twin-engine system demonstrated in April.
“That makes it somewhat overpowered for any missile North Korea could put on a mobile transporter,” he said, adding that while such a move was not impossible, it was unlikely since they already have the earlier engine.
Instead, the new engine would be ideally suited for a large space launch vehicle of the sort the North has claimed it intends to build to place communications satellites in orbit, said Schilling, part of a team of commentators that monitor the country for the 38 North website.
“If North Korea were interested in building large, immobile missiles, they would not have devoted so much of their resources to a submarine-launched missile system that is the very antithesis of ‘large and immobile,’ ” he said. “So this engine is likely not meant for a missile at all, but rather a space launch vehicle.”
Pyongyang has invested heavily in submarine-launched ballistic missile technology, which would give its nuclear weapons better survivability and operational flexibility than fixed-site missiles.
Kim, who has called the refining the North’s space technology an “important barometer for estimating national power,” expressed “great satisfaction” with the results of the engine test. North Korea, he said, had made cutting-edge advances “despite the difficult economic conditions of the country.”
After the supervising the latest test at the country’s Sonhae space facility, Kim called for more satellite launches in a bid to turn the North “into a possessor of geostationary satellites” within a few years.
KCNA gave no date for the test but generally reports Kim’s activities the following day.
North Korea has been hit by five sets of United Nations sanctions since it first tested a nuclear device in 2006, but has insisted it will continue its testing pace.
Its engine advance comes in the wake of its fifth — and most powerful — nuclear test and a spate of missile launches earlier this month, including a volley of three ballistic missiles that fell within Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
Tokyo labeled the move a grave threat to its national security amid Pyongyang’s growing ability to strike the Japanese archipelago.
Pyongyang has fired off a spate of missiles since the beginning of the year, but the Sept. 5 launches — said to be timed as world leaders were meeting in China for the Group of 20 summit — were just the second time North Korean missiles had landed inside Japan’s EEZ.
The nation also claimed to have successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Aug. 24, when the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Tokyo to discuss regional issues.
Also Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang agreed to step up cooperation in the United Nations Security Council and in law-enforcement channels after the North’s fifth nuclear test, the White House said.
U.N. diplomats say the two powers have begun discussions on a possible U.N. sanctions resolution in response to the nuclear test, although Beijing has not said directly whether it will support tougher steps against Pyongyang.
Obama met Li on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly session in New York.
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