Asia Pacific

North Korea preparing for another ballistic missile test: report

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea is readying to launch another intermediate-range missile within the next three days, a report said Tuesday, the latest in a spate of tests by the isolated country.

Citing two unidentified U.S. government officials, Fox News said Tuesday that the North would test-fire one of its Musudan midrange missiles within the next 24 to 72 hours.

Any launch within the reported three-day window would come just days ahead of the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. Past tests have repeatedly coincided with key U.S., North Korean and global events.

Pyongyang has defied the global outcry and U.N. sanctions, conducting two nuclear tests — including its most powerful yet — and 24 missile tests this year alone, deepening concern that it is moving closer to having a nuclear-tipped missile that could hit the U.S. mainland.

A test of its Musudan, which has a theoretical range of between 2,500 and 4,000 km, would be its ninth of the model since January, experts believe.

Last month, the North is thought to have conducted two tests of the missile, both of which reportedly failed.

But a successful launch would threaten not only American military bases in Japan and South Korea, but installations as far away as Guam, where U.S. nuclear bombers that play a key role in deterrence on the Korean Peninsula are deployed.

Some experts have warned that the Musudan could become operational as early as next year amid the North’s ramped-up pace of missile tests.

“The North Koreans aren’t simply repeating old failures,” John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and expert on North Korea’s missile program, said in a report posted to the influential 38 North website last month. “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, he wrote, they are continuing with an aggressive test schedule that often involves demonstrating new operational capabilities.

“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.”

During a trip to Beijing over the weekend, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the threat posed by the North’s nuclear and missile programs the most important challenge in Asia for Washington.

“From our perspective, this is the top agenda issue because what we’ve seen over the past year in particular is a qualitative change in the threat posed by the DPRK’s nuclear and missile programs,” Blinken said Saturday, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Blinken’s comments came on the heels of stunning remarks by U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said that persuading the North to scrap its nuclear weapons program “is probably a lost cause” and that the best Washington can hope for in the future is to cap its capabilities.

Amid the tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. Navy announced Monday the arrival to Guam of the USS Pennsylvania, a nuclear-powered ballistic-missile sub.

“This is the first visit of an SSBN (a submarine with ballistic missile capability) to Guam since 1988; however, Ohio-class SSGN (guided-missile submarine) assets have been forward deployed out of Guam for several years conducting maintenance, refits and crew exchanges,” said Lt. Lauren Spaziano, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Squadron 15.

“This planned submarine visit demonstrates our commitment to the collective security of all our partner nations, and it complements the many exercises, training and operations conducted between the United States and its allies,” she added.

The arrival is the latest in a series of U.S. power-projection moves on the island apparently designed to reassure nervous Asian allies amid the North’s nuclear saber-rattling.

Guam and the surrounding islands were also hosting U.S. and Japanese forces, which kicked off their first joint-drill Sunday since the enactment of Japan’s new national security laws.

The Keen Sword exercises involving the U.S. military and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces involve a total of 25,000 Ground, Maritime and Air SDF members, and 11,000 U.S. service personnel.

While primarily focusing on a range of amphibious missions, the drills would also see a ballistic missile defense component in light of the North Korean missile and nuclear tests.

Last month, the U.S. flew two Guam-based supersonic bombers over South Korea — with one landing on the Korean Peninsula for the first time in 20 years.

The U.S. Air Force said those flights, which took off from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, was the closest a B-1B strategic bomber had ever flown to the border between South and North Korea.