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By Ryan Pickrell
North Korea may have just taken a step towards developing a functional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea tested a high-thrust rocket engine Sunday. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un called the test “a great event of historical significance” that marked “a new birth” of the country’s rocket industry. “The world will soon witness what eventual significance the great victory won today carries,” the young despot added.
The device the North tested included a main engine and four vernier thrusters for stability purposes. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense remarked that the long-range rocket engine was more sophisticated than North Korea’s previous models. Defense ministry spokesman Lee Jin-woo told The New York Times that the North “has made meaningful progress.” Lee did not specify whether the engine could be used for satellite launches or the development of an ICBM.
Some analysts are leaning towards the latter in their assessments.
“This was a comprehensive test for the first-stage rocket for an ICBM, and that is why it was dangerous,” Kim Dong-yub, a rocket engineering expert at 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.”
Observers suggest that the North has taken a “dangerous step” toward its goal of building a long-range missile capable of striking targets in the U.S. with a nuclear weapon.
North Korea has yet to develop an ICBM largely due to the country’s clear inability to master atmospheric re-entry; however, Pyongyang may soon push for a test of the first 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,” Kim explained, “They are not going to show it all at once.”
North Korea tested another long-range rocket engine last April. Analysts called the test a “significant step forward for Pyongyang’s ICBM program.”
North Korea has been shy about its missile development goals.
In his New Year’s speech, Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea “has reached the final stage of preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.” The foreign ministry later announced that “the ICBM will be launched anytime and anywhere” Kim desires.
“Just because the U.S. is located more than ten thousand kilometers away does not make the country safe,” the Rodong Sinmun, the primary publication of the ruling Worker’s Party, asserted shortly thereafter. “Soon our ICBM will send the shiver down [America’s] spine,” the paper warned.
While the new engine could potentially be used for an ICBM, North Korean reports concerning the recent rocket engine test refer only to civilian, not military uses. After the test last April, North Korea’s rhetoric was much more intense. “Now the DPRK can tip new type inter-continental ballistic rockets with more powerful nuclear warheads and keep any cesspool of evils in the earth, including the U.S. mainland, within our striking range and reduce them to ashes so that they may not survive in our planet,” the Korean Central News Agency reported afterwards. This kind of aggressive bluster was not seen this time around.
More analysis is needed to determine North Korea’s specific plans for the new engine.