North Korea’s Newly Tested Ballistic Missile Lacking Nuclear Capabilities, US, South Korea Say

A handout photo made available by the United States Forces Korea (USFK) and the 8th Army shows missiles being fired during US-South Korean joint Precision Firing Capability exercise along the east coast in South Korea, 05 July 2017. Photo: USFK handout/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

  • Long-range ballistic missile tested by North Korea is unlikely to have the capacity to deliver nuclear warheads, according to experts.
  • Minimum range for an intercontinental ballistic missile is 5,500 km while newly tested rocket Hwasong-14 is estimated to have a range of between 6,700 and 8,000 km.
  • South Korea’s Defense Ministry has said there are still too many uncertainties to conclude that North Korea has successfully developed an ICBM.
  • Yet, Pyongyang’s ability to miniaturize a warhead has improved substantially.
  • North Korea might soon carry out its 6th nuclear test, according to the South Korean government.

The long-range ballistic missile tested by North Korea on Tuesday, which the regime of Kim Jong-un has claimed is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the US mainland, is unlikely to have the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons, according to experts.

After on Tuesday the regime of Kim Jong-un carried out a new ballistic missile test, and claimed that the rocket was the much coveted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in warned North Korea not to cross a “red line.”

The ballistic missile tested by North Korea on Tuesday traveled some 933 km (577 miles) before it fell in the Sea of the Japan, in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. It reached an altitude of some 2,300 – 2,800 km (1,430 – 1,740 miles). If launched at a standard angle, it may have traversed some 6,000 km (3,700 miles).

It is North Korea’s 12th rocket test (and ninth successful one) since US President Donald Trump assumed office in January.

Even though the North Korean central news agency touted the success of its intercontinental ballistic missile launch, the US military characterized the tested rocket as a “land-based, intermediate-range” missile (IRBM).

Last week, a US nuclear expert warned that Kim Jong-un might be coming closer to being able to produce a hydrogen bomb, also known as thermonuclear weapon, as it is able to produce tritium, a key element.

North Korea recently carried out a new test of a rocket engine that could be used for powering an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the weapon that can threaten directly the US mainland.

On behalf of the Kim Jong-un regime, North Korea’s Ambassador to India recently offered the US a conditional moratorium on his country’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

The offer came against the backdrop of the death of US college student Otto Warmbier who passed away after 17 months in North Korean captivity, and for which Pyongyang denied responsibility, and of South Korea’s decision to suspend the further deployment of the US THAAD missile shield.

Ongoing activity and a large number of people have been spotted at North Korea’s nuclear test site, the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, amid lingering concerns that the regime of leader Kim Jong-un could carry out its sixth nuclear test.

There have been reports that North Korea has been bracing for a preemptive US missile strike similar to the missile strike on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to the April 4 attack with chemical weapons.

In early June, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed new sanctions on North Korea and entities trading with it over its ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and continued violations of UN Security Council resolutions.

People watch a live TV report showing North Korea’s special announcement that it has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a station in Seoul, South Korea, 04 July 2017. Photo: Jeon Heon-kyun//EPA/REX/Shutterstock

‘Escalation of Threat’

The US has confirmed that North Korea tested a long-range missile which some experts believe could reach Alaska, BBC News reported.

“The United States strongly condemns North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Testing an ICBM represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in a statement.

“The United States seeks only the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the end of threatening actions by North Korea. As we, along with others, have made clear, we will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea,” he said, adding that the US intends to bring North Korea’s “provocative action” before the UN Security Council and enact stronger measures to hold it accountable.

In response to the North Korean test, the US and South Korea conducted a joint military exercise on Wednesday.

A statement by the two countries’ militaries warned that “self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war” and that their drills showed “we are able to change our choice”.

A long-range missile usually designed to carry a nuclear warhead. The minimum range of an ICBM is 5,500km (3,400 miles), although most fly about 10,000 km or more.

North Korea has previously displayed two types of ICBMs: the KN-08, with a range of 11,500 km, and the KN-14, with a range of 10,000 km, but before July 4 it had not claimed to have flight tested an ICBM. It is not clear what differentiates the newly tested Hwasong-14 rocket.

Uncertainties

Some experts believe that Tuesday’s test proves that it has a missile that could travel across the globe and reach Alaska.

Physicist David Wright said it could reach a maximum range of about 6,700 km on a standard trajectory, while South Korea’s Defence Ministry on Wednesday put the range between 7,000 and 8,000 km.

It is unclear if the newly tested North Korean missile could deliver a nuclear warhead. Experts believe Pyongyang does not yet have the capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead, fit it onto a long-range missile, and ensure it is protected until delivery to the target. Many of North Korea’s missiles are said to be unable to accurately hit targets.

According to some forecasts, North Korea might be able to overcome these challenges and develop a nuclear weapon that could strike the US within 5 – 10 years.

‘Collapse and Extinction’

South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday confirmed North Korea’s test of a new ballistic missile, identifying it as an upgraded two-stage version of its KN-17 or Hwasong-12 missile, South Korean news agency Yonhap reported.

During a parliamentary briefing, Defense Minister Han Min-koo said that the ministry put the missile’s range at between 7,000 km and 8,000 km but found no definitive evidence to prove its atmospheric re-entry capability.

The minister also noted there is a “high” possibility of Pyongyang staging another nuclear test and that its capability to miniaturize a warhead has reached a “considerable” level.

“If the North Korean regime presses ahead with reckless provocations, it would face stern sanctions from the international community and, in the end, its self-destruction,” Han told a session of the National Assembly’s defense committee.

“We are keeping close tabs on the North’s movement in close cooperation with the U.S. (forces) and preparing – based on the South Korea-US alliance – to respond sternly to any provocation,” he added.

During the briefing, South Korea’s Defense Ministry refused to conclude the North succeeded in developing an ICBM.

“Considering that the missile was launched from a fixed launch pad, and that we have yet to confirm whether (the missile) has re-entered (the atmosphere), there are still limits for us to conclude that the North has been successful in its ICBM development,” the ministry said in the briefing.

As for the reason why the North used the fixed land-based launch pad, the ministry said it was a temporary method at a research or development phase and appeared intended to avoid damage to its road-mobile launchers.

A handout photo made available by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) allegedly shows the North Korean inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14 being prepared before a test launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea, 04 July 2017. Photo: KCNA handout/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

For the North to claim its latest test as a success, Han said Pyongyang must prove the missile warhead is capable of withstanding temperatures of at least 7,000 degrees Celsius.

“What matters is whether its warhead functioned well from a military standpoint when it re-entered the atmosphere after flying into space,” Han noted.

The minister also noted the “high” possibility of Pyongyang staging another nuclear test. The North has a track record of conducting nuke experiments following long-range rocket tests.

“It is hard to conclusively talk about (the possibility), but I think the likelihood is high given that (becoming a nuclear power) is the North’s national goal,” he said.

Han, in addition, mentioned his presumption that the North’s capability to miniaturize a warhead has reached a “considerable” level.”

South Korea’s Defense Minister defended the deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile system as the “best” defensive weapon to counter threats from Pyongyang’s short- and mid-range missiles. But he admitted it was not designed to intercept an ICBM.

Commenting on the North’s intentions behind the latest provocation, the Defense Ministry pointed out its development schedule based on its technological motive to secure long-range delivery capabilities, a show of force following the South Korea-U.S. summit last week and ahead of the U.S. Independence Day, and its intent to secure an upper hand in future negotiations with South Korea and the United States.

Meanwhile, a South Korean parliamentary committee adopted a resolution condemning North Korea’s missile launch and urging it to stop any escalatory activity.

“The North Korean authorities themselves will have to bear the price for their provocative behavior, and we gravely warn that it could result in the Kim Jong-un regime facing its collapse and extinction,” the resolution read.

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