North Korea could have an operational intermediate-range ballistic missile by next year, an analysis by the influential 38 North website said Monday.
Such a weapon could threaten military installations on Guam and the U.S. nuclear bombers that play a key role in deterrence on the Korean Peninsula.
The report by the North Korea-monitoring website comes after an apparent failed test of a Musudan missile Saturday. U.S. officials said it exploded shortly after launch.
While it remains unclear if the missile in question was a Musudan, such a test would be the seventh of the weapon this year. Just one of those tests was a success, and all were breaches of United Nations resolutions prohibiting the isolated nation’s use of ballistic missile technology.
First unveiled at a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2010, the Musudan has a theoretical range of between 2,500 and 4,000 km.
Experts say that despite the spate of failed tests, the North is making progress with the Musudan and in its overall missile program.
“The North Koreans aren’t simply repeating old failures,” John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and expert on North Korea’s missile program, said in the report. “And they aren’t taking the slow path to developing a reliable system, with a year or so between each test to analyze the data and make improvements.”
Importantly, they are continuing with an aggressive test schedule that often involves demonstrating new operational capabilities.
“That increases the probability of individual tests failing, but it means they will learn more with each test even if it does result in failure,” Schilling said.
“If they continue at this rate, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile could enter operational service sometime next year — much sooner than had previously been expected.”
Another new development noted in the analysis was the test’s location, Kusong, on the west coast. Typically, North Korea has conducted Musudan launches from sites associated with its namesake Musudan-ri test facilities on the eastern coast.
“Moving to a roadside near Kusong is like taking the training wheels off the bicycle, seeing if you really have mastered something new,” Schilling said.
One possible reason for the move, about 600 km from Musudan-ri, could be that the North was actively seeking to hit a longer range without overflying other countries. Previous tests from Musudan-ri were limited to about 400 km to avoid Japanese airspace.
The North had been able to partially make up for this by using a steep trajectory, but this was unlikely to have demonstrated the missile’s maximum performance in a realistic manner.
In June, the North test-fired what appeared to be two Musudans. The first failed, but the second traveled 400 km, more than halfway toward the southwest coast of Japan. It reached an altitude of 1,000 km — enough to give its warhead a range of more than 3,000 km.
According to Schilling, a launch south from the west coast could see a North Korean missile travel some 3,000 km before it splashed into the Philippine Sea.
While the June test aroused fears that the Musudan could be used to strike targets throughout the region, a separate analysis by Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the missile is not yet capable of reaching Guam with a warhead weighing more than 500 kg. Still, Elleman cautioned that regardless of the success of the test, the confirmation that North Korea does indeed possess engines more powerful and efficient than those used in the past for Scud and Nodong missiles poses a longer-term threat to the U.S.
“North Korea could build a mobile, intercontinental-ballistic missile similar to the KN-08 and KN-14 mock-ups displayed previously,” he wrote. “Both the KN-08 and KN-14 would, in principle, be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.”
The KN-08, which has a theoretical range of 7,500 to 9,000 km, is a road-mobile missile believed to be under development by the North.
Schilling said Saturday’s test may have also inadvertently let slip the future home of the missiles, as the Kusong area hosts several key military sites in the most heavily defended part of the country.
“We may have just been given a clue as to where North Korea intends to base its operational Musudan force, once the field crews demonstrate that they can launch the things without factory tech support close at hand,” Schilling said.
Monday’s report came as the U.N. Security Council issued a scathing denunciation of Saturday’s failed test.
In a unanimous statement backed by the North’s main ally China, the council strongly condemned the test, branding it a “grave violation” of North Korea’s international obligations.
Council members agreed to “closely monitor the situation and take further significant measures,” the statement said.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Japan would work with other countries on a U.N. resolution to impose stepped-up sanctions against Pyongyang.
At a separate news conference, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada warned of a growing threat to Japan.
The fact that the missile was fired from a new location using a road-mobile launcher suggests a newly elevated threat, Inada said, adding that Japan would beef up its warning and surveillance activities.
Information from Kyodo added
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