SEOUL – North Korea may be preparing to test-launch a new, upgraded prototype of an intercontinental ballistic missile, South Korean media reported on Thursday, citing military sources.
In his New Year’s speech, leader Kim Jong Un said North Korea was close to test-launching an ICBM, and state media have said a launch could come at any time. Experts on the isolated and nuclear-capable country’s missile program believe the claims to be credible.
The launch could be imminent and potentially coincide with the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump on Friday, South Korean media sai
The South’s Yonhap news agency, quoting high-level South Korean officials and South Korean and U.S. military sources, said two new missiles had been loaded onto mobile launchers.
They were believed to be equipped with new engines that the North tested last April, it added, when Pyongyang said they would “guarantee” an eventual nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.
The missiles’ existence appeared to have been intentionally leaked by Pyongyang, according to Yonhap, to send a “strategic message” to incoming Trump.
South Korean intelligence agencies reported on Wednesday that they recently spotted missile parts being transported, believed to be the lower half of an ICBM, raising fears a test-launch may be imminent, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing unidentified military sources.
“It was different from a conventional Musudan missile in its length and shape,” the source told the Chosun Ilbo, referring to the intermediate-range missile tested by North Korea last year.
“It is possible they were moving it somewhere for assembly,” the source said.
South Korean defense ministry spokesman Roh Jae-cheon told a regular news briefing that while the reports could not be confirmed, the military was monitoring North Korea’s ICBM development.
North Korea has in the past paraded mock-ups of a road-mobile missile believed to be an ICBM design dubbed the KN-08 by outside observers. It is also believed to have an upgraded version dubbed KN-14.
A road-mobile ICBM, which could be kept hidden or on the move until fired, would make tracking and stopping a North Korean missile launch significantly more difficult.
The suspected ICBM is made up of two parts under 15 meters (49 feet) long and is shorter than the KN-08 and KN-14, Yonhap said, citing unidentified military sources.
“I don’t recognize the missiles from this description,” said Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review. “But as we saw in 2016, there’s certainly a variety of active missile programs under way in North Korea.”
“It’s also possible that they are simply conducting field exercises with no plans to launch, or the option to launch if decided,” said Pollack.
Last year, North Korea conducted a test of an ICBM engine made up of a cluster of smaller rockets, indicating it was working on an ICBM design.
Separately, the Washington-based think tank 38 North said on Thursday that operations at North Korea’s Nyongbyon nuclear facility may have restarted. North Korea is believed to be able to reprocess plutonium at Nyongbyon used in its nuclear warheads.