Photos released by nuclear-armed North Korea on Wednesday appear to reveal the designs for two new missiles — a provocative move that comes just after the United States’ top diplomat said he was pleased with the recent “restraint” exercised by Pyongyang.
The pictures were released as part of dispatches by the official Rodong Sinmun daily and Korean Central News Agency detailing a visit by supreme leader Kim Jong Un to a plant that makes solid-fuel engines and nose cones for the isolated country’s ballistic-missile program.
In the report, KCNA said Kim had visited the site and ordered the plant to “produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips.”
One of the photos showed a poster for an apparently new missile called the Pukguksong-3, the latest in that series. The North successfully tested a submarine-launched Pukguksong-1 last August. It followed that advance with a land-based, canister-launched version of the missile, known as the Pukguksong-2, in February.
Experts say both are either medium- or intermediate-range missiles that could put U.S. military bases in Japan within striking distance. Solid-fuel and canister-launched missiles make it easier to hide the weapons from spy satellites. Analysts say most of the missiles in North Korea’s arsenal are liquid-fueled.
Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review, said that while it was not possible to tell if the missile is sub-launched or land-based, “the name alone conveys that it’s a solid-fueled missile.”
Pollack said the other missile’s model was harder to discern, though he noted that it carried a Hwasong designation name and was either a Hwasong-13 or Hwasong-11.
The North labels many of its missiles with the Hwasong designation, including its only intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, which it successfully tested last month. That missile is believed capable of hitting a large chunk of the U.S. mainland, including Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago.
In reference to the apparent road-mobile, long-range KN-08 missile, mock-ups of which were first displayed during a military parade in April 2012, Pollack suggested that the new Hwasong missile probably showed “that the old KN-08 is being replaced or substantially upgraded.”
He also said that amid suspicions the North may be sourcing some materiel from abroad, Kim’s visit seemed “to be designed to dispel the idea that they are dependent on foreign sources for missile technology.”
Nevertheless, many of the missile elements in the photos appeared to aspirational as opposed to technology already developed by the country, which was recently slapped with the harshest-yet round of sanctions by the United Nations.
Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said the photos are an ominous portent: “It’s all bad.”
“If I understand North Korean propaganda, this is their way of telling us what we’ll see in the air in the coming year,” Lewis wrote on Twitter.
In a sign that the drama over the North’s nuclear program may be easing, Wednesday’s report — which coincided with the third day of the 10-day joint U.S.-South Korea Ulchi Free Guardian military exercise — notably did not contain any provocative rhetoric directed at the U.S.
It also came just after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks that the door to dialogue with Pyongyang remained open despite its recent heated rhetoric with Washington — including the announcement of a plan to shower the waters around the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with four missiles, a plan that would send the missiles over Japan.
“I think it is worth noting that we have had no missile launches or provocative acts on the part of North Korea since the unanimous adoption of the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Tillerson said Tuesday, according to a transcript of his briefing.
“I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past. We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we’ve been looking for that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions, they’re ready to restrain their provocative acts, and that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue.”
But the top American diplomat also added, “We need to see more on their part.”
U.S. President Donald Trump, who had vowed to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea if it endangered the United States, also appeared to tamp down his rhetoric Tuesday.
Trump expressed cautious hope for a possible improvement in relations with Pyongyang, telling a campaign rally in Phoenix that Kim “is starting to respect us.”
“And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about,” Trump said of the two countries’ relationship.