SEOUL: North Korea has been working through 2016 on developing components for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), making the isolated nation’s claim that it was close to a test-launch plausible, international weapons experts said on Monday.
North Korea has been testing rocket engines and heat-shields for an ICBM while developing the technology to guide a missile after re-entry into the atmosphere following a lift-off, the experts said.
While Pyongyang is close to a test, it is likely to take some years to perfect the weapon.
Once fully developed, a North Korean ICBM could threaten the continental United States, which is around 9,000 km from the North. ICBMs have a minimum range of about 5,500 km, but some are designed to travel 10,000 km or further.
North Korea’s state media regularly threatens the United States with a nuclear strike, but before 2016 Pyongyang had been assumed to be a long way from being capable of doing so.
“The bottom line is Pyongyang is much further along in their missile development than most people realise,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the US-based Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.
She said the North’s test in April of a large liquid-fuel engine that could propel an ICBM was a major development. “The liquid engine test was astounding,” Hanham said.
“For years, we knew that North Korea had a Soviet R-27 missile engine design. They re-engineered the design of that engine to double its propulsion”.
North Korea has said it is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile but it claims to be able to miniaturise a nuclear device have never been independently verified.
The isolated nation has achieved this progress despite UN Security Council imposed sanctions for its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches dating back to 2006. The sanctions ban arms trade and money flows that can fund the country’s arms programme.
North Korea has enough uranium for six bombs a year and much of what it needs for its nuclear and missile programmes relies on Soviet-era design and technology. Labour is virtually free.
It can produce much of its missile parts domestically and invested heavily in its missile development infrastructure last year, funded by small arms sales and by taxing wealthy traders in its unofficial market economy.
Throughout the year, North Korean state media showed images of numerous missile component tests, some of which revealed close-up details of engines and heat shields designed to protect a rocket upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
The propaganda offensive may have revealed some military secrets, but it may have also been a bid to silence outside analysts, many of whom had remained sceptical of the North’s missile programme.