North Korea confirmed Tuesday that it had successfully tested a new “precision-guided” ballistic missile a day earlier, reiterating that it was working to send an even bigger “gift package to the Yankees” — a veiled reference to a long-range missile capable of striking the continental U.S.
The new missile launched Monday was equipped with a more advanced automated pre-launch sequence than previous versions of its “Hwasong” missiles, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report, using the name Pyongyang has used for some of its Scud-class missiles.
The missile flew some 400 km, apparently landing in Japan’s exclusive economic zone — a move that prompted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to vow “concrete measures” in response.
KCNA said in the report that leader Kim Jong Un had guided the test-firing of the missile, which was displayed for the first time during a massive military parade last month.
In that parade, Pyongyang unveiled a slew of new weapons, including a missile known as the KN-17, a Scud derivative that experts said may have been the missile involved in Monday’s test.
The test, KCNA said, was conducted to verify features of a “new self-propelled launching pad vehicle” and “automated launching preparation processes” in different terrain and conditions in order to make an “ultra-precision strike on the enemies’ objects at any area.”
The KN-17 sports distinctive forward fins, presumably to add a terminal guidance capability for increased maneuverability and accuracy — a point the North highlighted in the KCNA report.
“The ballistic rocket flew toward the east sky where the day broke and correctly hit a planned target point with deviation of seven meters after flying over the middle shooting range,” it claimed.
Upon viewing the successful test, Kim was quoted as saying that the “crack shot … would dig up eyes of the enemies.”
Initially thought to be an anti-ship missile, experts said have cast doubt on this theory, noting the North’s lack of capabilities needed to guide and track the KN-17.
Instead, some believe it would make more sense — at least for now — for the North to employ the new missile against targets on land.
“Using the KN-17 in the anti-ship role makes zero sense without supporting ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance),” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia. “Unless they make some rapid breakthrough in targeting, use against fixed targets makes much more sense.”
Such a move would potentially add yet another missile to the North’s growing list of weapons capable of striking U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea.
John Schilling, an aerospace engineer who has written extensively on the North’s missile program, echoed this sentiment.
“If Pyongyang does intend to use the KN-17 against naval targets, it would face a particularly difficult targeting problem,” Schilling wrote earlier this month on the influential 38 North blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
However, he said, “allied military bases in South Korea and Japan can be reliably mapped in peacetime, and aren’t going to move.”
Monday’s launch marked the 12th test-firing by the nuclear-armed country this year — and the third in three weeks. It was also likely the first time since early March that a North Korean missile had fallen within Japan’s EEZ and the fourth time in total. On March 6, three of four Scud-ER (extended-range) missiles fired by the country landed inside the zone.
North Korean state-run media said those launches were part of a rehearsal for striking U.S. military bases in Japan. Analysts said that the hypothetical target of that drill was U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
While most of the Scuds in the North’s arsenal cannot reliably hit parts of Japan, the Scud-ER has had a demonstrated range that puts areas of the country at risk, including Iwakuni.
But regardless of whether Monday’s test was of a standard Scud, any breakthroughs made could be applied to the Scud-ER, according to Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, making an already provocative weapon even more threatening.
Experts say that the North’s rocket-guidance innovations could also test U.S. allies’ missile-defense networks, including Japan’s ship-based Aegis system and its Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC-3) land-to-air missiles.
“We’ve long considered North Korea’s hundreds of conventional Scud missiles to be mostly a harassment weapon due to their inaccuracy, but if they can reliably deliver half a ton of high explosives directly onto a crowded barracks, an ammunition dump or USFK (U.S. Force Korea) headquarters, we might have a real problem,” wrote Schilling. “It might be time to start testing the Patriot system against maneuvering re-entry vehicles.”
But while these developments have stoked concern in Tokyo, international outcry — led by Washington — has focused more on reining in the North’s nuclear and long-range missile ambitions.
In the KCNA report, Kim alluded to this, lauding the country’s quest to master the technology needed to hit the continental U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Kim said his country would develop more formidable weapons in multiple phases in accordance with a timetable it had set to defend the North against the United States.
The report quoted him as saying that the North “would make a greater leap forward in this spirit to send a bigger ‘gift package’ to the Yankees” in retaliation for American military provocations.
There has been mounting speculation that Pyongyang is moving closer to conducting a test of an ICBM, suggested by a New Year’s Day address in which the North Korean leader claimed that the country was in the “final stages” of developing such a weapon.
U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed that a launch of an ICBM by Pyongyang “won’t happen” on his watch.
Abe, meanwhile, said Monday that Tokyo would “never tolerate” Pyongyang’s repeated provocations, and vowed to work with Washington to halt the Kim regime’s progress with its nuclear weapons and missiles.
“To deter North Korea, we, together with the United States, will take concrete actions,” Abe said. He did not elaborate.