SEOUL: North Korea has successfully tested a new, high-powered rocket engine, state media said on Tuesday, a move experts say will bolster its already burgeoning weapons program.
The ground test comes after more than 20 missile launches and two nuclear explosions this year, and adds to the sense that the isolated state is quickening the development of its arsenal, despite fierce global opposition.
State-run news agency KCNA said the engine would give the country “sufficient carrier capability for launching various kinds of satellites.”
Rocket engines are easily re-purposed for use in missiles, and outside observers say that Pyongyang’s space program is a fig leaf for weapons tests.
After supervising the test at the country’s Sohae satellite-launching site, leader Kim Jong-Un called on officials, scientists and technicians “to round off the preparations for launching the satellite as soon as possible,” KCNA news agency reported.
Kim also called for more rocket launches to turn the country into a “possessor of geostationary satellites in a couple of years to come,” according to KCNA.
The front page of the North’s Rodong Sinmun showed a picture of a long flame bursting from an engine propped up by a cement structure; another photo showed Kim watching the test and a separate picture showed him laughing excitedly.
Rocket scientist Chae Yeon-Seok at the South’s Korea Aerospace Research Institute said with the new engine, the North is “coming close to having an inter-continental ballistic missile [ICBM] that could hit the US mainland.”
Pyongyang regularly parades homegrown missiles and boasts of its plan to develop long-range missiles capable of targeting the United States.
“North Korea’s space program is focused on developing launch vehicles that can easily be used for missiles rather than developing decent satellites,” Chae told Agence-France Presse.
South Korea’s military Joint Chiefs of Staff also said the test was to verify the performance of “a high-power engine that can be used for long-range missiles.”
US-Korea Institute said on its closely-watched website, 38North, said this test represents a “significant step” in the continued development of larger, more advanced space launch vehicles.
North Korea has already carried out a series of long-range missile tests presented as satellite launches, most recently in February.
It has also fired missiles from a submarine.
A proven submarine-launched ballistic missile system would allow deployment far beyond the Korean peninsula and a “second-strike” capability in the event of an attack on the North’s military bases.
Earlier this month it said an underground nuclear test — its most powerful yet — was of a miniaturized device that could be mounted on a missile.
Kim “expressed great satisfaction” with the results of the engine test, according to KCNA.
He said the North had made cutting-edge scientific advances “despite the difficult economic conditions of the country,” the report said.
North Korea has been hit by five sets of United Nations sanctions since it first tested a nuclear device in 2006, but has insisted it will continue, come what may.
KCNA gave no date for the test but it is customary for state media to report Kim’s activities with a day’s lapse.
Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies said the North had set a five-year space development program that ends this year.
“This new test heralds an upcoming landmark ICBM test. The next test, disguised as a satellite launch, is likely to come when the UN Security Council adopts new sanctions over its last nuclear test or around the time when the US presidential election takes place in November,” Yang said.
The United States has a range of missile-defense technologies at its disposal, including the Aegis Combat System, Patriot missiles and sophisticated radars.
Washington is also working with Seoul to install a missile defense system known as THAAD in South Korea, though the move has infuriated Beijing, which says the hardware poses a significant threat to regional security.