SEOUL – North Korea’s latest missile test places Washington within range, South Korea said on Friday, but the North still needs to prove critical missile technology.
South Korea said it expected Pyongyang to pause its provocative missile testing program following Wednesday’s successful flight of its new Hwasong-15 missile, which can reach the U.S. mainland.
Pyongyang has said the test was a “breakthrough.” Leader Kim Jong Un said the country had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
South Korea Defense Minister Song Young-moo said: “Kim Jong Un is acting in a very calculative, clever manner. Kim changed the launch time, direction and distance in order to display he has this great power.”
Song added, “He will probably make a great announcement in his New Year’s address that the North has completed its weapons program.”
South Korea’s Ministry of Defense said the Hwasong-15 missile is a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile that can fly over 13,000 km (8,000 miles), placing Washington within target range.
However, North Korea still needs to prove some technologies — such as re-entry, terminal stage guidance and warhead activation — said Yeo Suk-joo, deputy minister of defense policy at the defense ministry.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday told U.S. President Donald Trump by phone that despite the technical issues, the new missile is North Korea’s most advanced.
According to an analysis by South Korea’s military, Yeo told lawmakers at a parliamentary session that the first-stage engine of the Hwasong-15 missile is a clustering of two engines from Hwasong-14 missiles, which are also ICBMs that were test-launched in July this year.
Yeo said the Hwasong-15 is 2 meters longer than the Hwasong-14; the second-stage engine requires further analysis.
In order to curb further provocations from the North, U.S. strategic assets will continue to be rotated on and near the Korean Peninsula until the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next February, Yeo said.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it believes North Korea is unlikely to engage in more missile and rocket tests soon due to a number of reasons, including the onset of winter.
“For now if there are no sudden changes in situation or external factors, we feel there is a high chance North Korea will refrain from engaging in provocations for a while,” said Lee Yoo-jin, deputy spokeswoman at the Unification Ministry.
North Korea is known to test fewer missiles in the fourth quarter of the year, when troops are called to help with harvests and the cold strains its fuel supplies.
This week’s missile launch was the first in 75 days.
The latest provocation from the North prompted more insults from Trump, who referred to Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and a “sick puppy.”
Trump on Thursday also dismissed a Chinese diplomatic effort to rein in North Korea’s weapons program as a failure. In partial contrast, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Beijing is doing a lot but could do more to limit oil supplies to Pyongyang.
Trump and Moon pledged to continue applying strong sanctions and pressure on North Korea to bring it to talks.
Addressing an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting after this week’s missile launch, the United States warned North Korea’s leadership it would be “utterly destroyed” if war were to break out.