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North Korea acquires re-entry technology

May 17,2017
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The Rodong Sinmun published photos of Sunday morning’s missile launch in its Monday edition. [YONHAP]
North Korea appears to have acquired re-entry technology after its latest test and has therefore crossed another hurdle, bringing it closer to building a successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can carry a nuclear warhead, according to government analysis.

A South Korean government source told the JoongAng Ilbo Tuesday that the ballistic missile re-entry vehicle escaped and successfully re-entered the atmosphere, according to analysis of data communication with the North Korea’s ground control center during the most recent intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launch by North Korea on Sunday.

After its launch from the northwest city of Kusong, in North Pyongan Province, the North’s Hwasong-12 missile flew about 700 kilometers (435 miles) before landing in the East Sea, with a total flight time of 30 minutes and 11 seconds.

The telemetry of the missile re-entry vehicle collects various data, including speed, pressure and temperature, and constantly transmits this to the ground control center.

If the Hwasong-12 RV was not able to endure a maximum temperature of 5,000 degrees Celsius during the re-entry process, there would not have been data communications once it returned to atmosphere, according to the government assessment.

South Korean and U.S. authorities had determined that over its numerous launches of missiles and space launch vehicles, North Korea has acquired long-range, guidance and control technologies capabilities, but had not yet acquired the final stage of re-entry technology in its ballistic missile program.

In June, North Korea tested its intermediate-range Musudan missile, which was launched vertically, reaching an altitude of some 1,413 kilometers, and was considered successful. Authorities believe preliminary-level re-entry technology was likely tested then.

North Korea claimed that it successfully tested Sunday a “new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket” capable of carrying a “large-size heavy” nuclear warhead that can strike the U.S. mainland.

It claimed that its Hwasong-12 missile flew 787 kilometers and soared to an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers along its planned trajectory.

North Korean state-run media reported on the success of the launch and said that it verified the homing feature of the warhead that allowed it to survive "under the worst re-entry situation" and accurately detonate.

According to authorities’ evaluation, North Korea’s claims do not appear to be fabrications.

Moon Sang-gyun, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense spokesman, said in a briefing Tuesday that there is “a low likelihood that re-entry technology was applied to the Hwasong-12.”

Defense Minister Han Min-koo likewise told the National Assembly’s defense committee that the ministry determines that “North Korea has not been able to acquire re-entry technology” following North Korea’s announcement that it had succeeded in an atmospheric re-entry simulation test in March.

South Korean and U.S. officials have said re-entry technology for an IRBM does not necessarily translate to such technology for an IBCM, and these undergo different factors during re-entry.

The maximum speed of an IRBM is Mach 17, but an ICBM capable of striking mainland United States would need a range of over 10,000 kilometers with a speed of 25 Mach.

According to government authorities, if North Korea has achieved IRBM re-entry technology, then it is expected to take two to three years to transfer that technology to an ICBM.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]