SEOUL: North Korea on Monday declared its medium-range Pukguksong-2 missile ready for deployment after a weekend test, the latest step in its quest to defy UN sanctions and develop a weapon capable of striking US targets.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said the North’s leader Kim Jong-Un oversaw Sunday’s launch, which sparked a fresh chorus of international condemnation and threats of tougher sanctions.
It was the latest in a series of launches this year, as Pyongyang steps up its efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States – something President Donald Trump has vowed “won’t happen.”
The launches, and a threatened sixth nuclear test, have fuelled tension with the Trump administration, which has warned that military intervention was an option under consideration, sending fears of conflict spiraling.
The latest missile tested was the Pukguksong-2, which uses solid fuel that allows for immediate firing, KCNA said.
So far, almost all the North’s missiles have been liquid-fuelled, which have to be time-consumingly filled with propellant before launch.
Solid fuel missiles can be fired far more rapidly, dramatically shortening the time available for any attempt to intervene and prevent a launch.
Kim said “with pride” that the Pukguksong-2 was a “very accurate” missile and a “successful strategic weapon,” KCNA said, adding he “approved the deployment of this weapon system for action.”
The launch “completely verified” the reliability and accuracy of the device, and its late-stage warhead guidance system, KCNA said, adding the test results were “perfect.”
Images carried by the Rodong Sinmun – the official mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea – showed a smiling Kim clapping surrounded by his aides in an outdoor observation post as the missile shot up into the air.
It also had several pictures of the Earth said to have been taken from the rocket from space – the first such pictures released by the North.
Kim “said he was very happy to see pictures of the Earth taken by our rocket and that the world looks beautiful,” KCNA said, adding that he ordered the missile to be “rapidly mass-produced.”
UN emergency talks
Seoul military officials have previously said the Pukguksong-2 – a land-based version of Pyongyang’s submarine-launched weapon – uses solid fuel.
The missile, which was described by Washington as medium-range, was fired from Pukchang in South Phyongan province and traveled about 500 kilometers (310 miles) before landing in the Sea of Japan, according to the South’s armed forces.
The rocket used a cold-launch system, KCNA said.
The technology uses compressed gas to propel a missile upwards before its engine ignites in mid-air. It is considered safer and also makes it easier to hide the launch location.
A spokesman for Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters that according to South Korean and US intelligence authorities, the launch had provided the North with data to improve its missiles’ reliability.
But he added: “Our position is that the stable re-entry of the warhead needs more verification.”
The US, South Korea and Japan sharply denounced the launch and jointly requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which will be held Tuesday.
The test-firing came just one week after the North launched a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile, which according to Pyongyang was capable of carrying a “heavy” nuclear warhead.”
Analysts said that at 4,500 kilometers, the Hwasong-12 had a longer range than any previous ballistic missile successfully tested by the North, putting US bases on the Pacific island of Guam within reach – and that it could serve as a platform to develop a long-range ICBM.
Sunday’s Pukguksong-2 launch was unlikely to be the last, said Kim Dong-Yub, a missile expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies.
“This will ultimately lead to the development of a solid-fuel ICBM,” he said.
So far Washington has opted for sanctions and diplomatic pressure, while looking to China, the North’s closest ally, to help rein in Pyongyang.
South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-In has previously taken a more conciliatory line towards Pyongyang than his conservative predecessors, but has reacted strongly to the latest two missile tests.
Seoul’s foreign ministry slammed the “reckless and irresponsible” weekend firing as “throwing cold water on the hope and longing of the new government and the international community” for denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.
Pyongyang has long had missiles that can reach targets across South Korea and Japan, and South Koreans have been somewhat desensitized to the constant nuclear threats hurled by their belligerent northern neighbor.
But some residents in the capital said the latest string of launches was becoming disturbing.
“Every time North Korea fires a missile, I feel nervous,” said college student Yoon Shin-Hong. “Because we’re in a situation where we don’t know when war might break out, it’s nerve-wracking.”