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North is destined to launch another ICBM, say experts

Dec 05,2017
North Korea is destined to fire another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), arms experts in Korea and around the world said Monday.

“North Korea already verified its technology through the first launch,” Kwon Yong-soo, former professor of Korea National Defense University, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “It will likely fire another to announce it will operationally deploy the Hwasong-15.”

The North fired a new ICBM, the Hwasong-15, on Nov. 29, which puts the whole U.S. mainland in range. The South Korean military later acknowledged that the Hwasong-15 missile was capable of striking targets more than 13,000 kilometers (8,078 miles) away.

“To demonstrate the design resilience of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, NK should test another one soon,” Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Research Center at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, wrote in a Twitter post. “Probable preparation time should be around 10-14 days at least. So, second test COULD be conducted around December 15-20.”

The North has a history of conducting multiple launches to master a certain technology. It fired its first Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 4, and a second on July 28.

“We suspected that the North conducted the second launch because its first launch failed to demonstrate the expected capability,” said a military source. During the first launch, the Hwasong-14 missile flew 933 kilometers for 39 minutes with a maximum altitude of 2,902 kilometers. During the second launch, it flew 998 kilometers for 47 minutes and 12 seconds with a maximum altitude of 3,725 kilometers.

The Hwasong-15 missile traveled 950 kilometers with a maximum altitude of 4,475 kilometers. Its flight time was 53 minutes.

The North may also conduct another launch to test its re-entry technology. U.S. media, including CNN and Fox News, said Friday that the Hwasong-15 missile appeared to have been destroyed during its atmospheric re-entry phase.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, said the North will likely conduct a provocation concerning a weapon of mass destruction later this month, based on its big data analysis. It said the possibility increases daily after Dec. 15.

Some speculate that the North will conduct a launch around Dec. 17, the anniversary of the former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. Kim was the father of the current leader, Kim Jong-un.

A senior Korean official also told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday that the North used advanced technology, similar to what is used for one of the best U.S. fighter jets, for the Hwasong-15.

“South Korea, Japan and the United States are conducting in-depth analysis on the technologies used for the missile,” said the source. “Photos released by the North showed that the new missile did not use a vernier thruster. The conclusion was drawn that the North used gimbals on the main engine to control the rocket.”

A vernier thruster is a rocket engine used to make precise adjustments in altitude or velocity. In gimbaled thrust, a rocket’s exhaust nozzle can swivel independently from the rocket itself, allowing for minor changes to the direction of thrust.

The source added, “This technology was applied to F-22s. But we could not confirm how the North acquired this technology.”

While the North insisted that it has designed and built the Hwasong-15 with indigenous technologies, intelligence communities believe that technologies from China or the former Soviet Union were used and modified.

Experts said the newest technology will help the North increase the missile’s range and accuracy. “Once you secure the technology of gimbaled thrust, it will largely simplify the design of a missile, shortening the production period,” said Lee Chun-keun, a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute.

A former military specialist also told the JoongAng Ilbo that the technology will upgrade the threat of North Korea’s missiles by improving their success rate.

“When we collected the Eunha-3’s first stage rocket, which the North fired in December 2012, we found that the North combined four Rodong missile engines to work as a main engine while a vernier thruster was used to control the direction,” he said. “Cables and fuel supply pipes were intricately intertwined inside. But an arms system has a larger possibility of failure when it is built that way. The new technology used in the Hwasong-15 will take the North’s missile technology to the next level.”

Other experts said the North may fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) instead of an ICBM.

A U.S. think tank, 38 North, said last week that the North almost completed an SLBM launch. According to its satellite photo analysis, the North was building a barge for a suspected SLBM launch at a ground facility of Navy Shipyard in Nampo. The barge was moved last month to a nearby port using a floating dry dock, 38 North said.

The North successfully tested the Pukguksong-1 SLBM in November and December 2015.

BY LEE CHUL-JAE, JEONG YONG-SOO [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]