North Korea engine test may be prelude to
partial ICBM flight
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[March 20, 2017]
By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea has likely
mastered the technology to power the different stages of an
intercontinental ballistic missile and may show it off soon, analysts
say, but is likely still a long way from being able to hit the mainland
North Korean state media announced its latest rocket-engine test on
Sunday, saying it would help North Korea achieve world-class
satellite-launch capability, indicating a new type of rocket engine for
an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The test showed "meaningful" progress, a spokesman for South Korea's
Defence Ministry said on Monday, with the firing of a main engine and
four auxiliary engines as part of the development of a new rocket
The announcement of the test came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson was in Beijing at the end of his first visit to Asia for talks
dominated by concern about North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
"Through this test, it is found that engine function has made meaningful
progress but further analysis is needed for exact thrust and possible
uses," Lee Jin-woo, the spokesman for the South Korean defense ministry,
told a briefing.
North Korea's state media released pictures of the high-thrust engine
test overseen by leader Kim Jong Un, and reported him hailing it as "a
new birth" of its rocket industry.
A South Korean expert on rocket engineering said the test was ominous.
"This was a comprehensive test for the first-stage rocket for an ICBM,
and that is why it was dangerous," Kim Dong-yub of the Institute for Far
Eastern Studies in Seoul told Reuters.
"It appears that North Korea has worked out much of its development of
the first-stage rocket booster."
But Kim said the North had still not mastered the atmospheric re-entry
technology needed for an ICBM, so it had work to do before being able to
hit the United States.
Nevertheless, it might soon demonstrate that it has perfected the
system's booster rocket stage.
"What could be next is they would make a new type of ICBM with this new
engine system and launch it, but not the entire stages, but to make only
the first stage, fly about 400 km and drop.
"They are not going to show it all at once."
AIMING FOR U.S.?
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and a series of missile
launches in defiance of U.N. resolutions, and is believed by experts and
government officials to be working to develop nuclear-warhead missiles
that could reach the United States.
Leader Kim Jong Un said this year the country was close to
test-launching an ICBM.
Kim's ambition is believed to be to develop a launch vehicle able to
strike a part of the continental United States, most likely Alaska, just
over 5,000 km (3,000 miles) from the North's missile test site.
[to top of second column]
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched the ground jet test of a
Korean-style high-thrust engine newly developed by the Academy of
the National Defence Science in this undated picture provided by
KCNA in Pyongyang on March 19, 2017. KCNA/via Reuters
Last week, Tillerson issued the Trump administration's starkest
warning yet to North Korea, saying a military response would be "on
the table" if it took action to threaten South Korean and U.S.
Experts disagreed in their initial assessment of whether the North's
test was for the engine for an ICBM, and for which stage of a rocket
it was meant for.
U.S. aerospace expert John Schilling said the engine appeared too
big for any ICBM North Korea was working on but would be a good fit
for the second stage of a new space rocket it is planning to build.
Joshua Pollack, of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Review,
said the design with four verniers, or steering nozzles, was
familiar in the North's older, long-range rockets launched to
deliver objects previously but said it could be the second stage of
a missile, not the first.
"Since the comparable display of 2016 was the first stage of an
ICBM, we could speculate that this is the second stage,” Pollack
told Reuters in an email.
North Korea fired rockets in 2012 and in 2016 to put objects into
Experts say space rockets and long-range missiles involve
fundamentally identical technologies, but with different
configurations for trajectory and velocity for the stages.
China said on Monday the situation with North Korea was at a new
crossroads with two scenarios - a deterioration to war or a
"Any chance for dialogue must be seized, as long as there’s hope,"
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Beijing.
(Additional reporting by James Pearson in Seoul and David Brunnstrom
in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jack Kim)
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