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North Korea testing engines for ICBM, stokes nuclear fears

AFP, SEOUL

North Korea has been testing engines for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a US think tank said yesterday, as Pyongyang announced a top military reshuffle that coincided with signs of a looming nuclear test.

The US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said satellite images of the North’s Sohae rocket launch site suggested one “and maybe more” recent tests on the engine of what is probably the first stage of a road-mobile ICBM called the KN-08.

It was the latest in a series of similar tests — dating back to the middle of last year — on a missile with a targeted range of up to 11,000km, the institute said on its closely followed Web site, 38 North.

“The next technically logical step... would be a flight test of the entire system,” it said.

The successful test of an ICBM capable of reaching the continental US would take the nuclear threat posed by the North to an entirely new level.

Experts believe three nuclear tests have brought the North closer to mastering the miniaturization techniques required to place a nuclear warhead on a missile.

And there are signs it is preparing a fourth test, with multiple analyses of recent satellite images all noting stepped-up activity at the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

“All these activities are consistent with the view that a [nuclear] test or tests will occur soon,” the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in its latest assessment yesterday.

Missile delivery has often been cited as the main weakness of the North’s nuclear weapons program.

It has yet to test its medium-range Musudan missile with a range of up to 4,000km, let alone an ICBM.

In December 2012, it put a satellite in orbit with a rocket launch that was widely condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test.

That launch marked a significant step forward, but the rocket lacked the re-entry capability required of a functioning ICBM.

Models of the road-mobile KN-08 missile were displayed in North Korean military parades in 2012 and in July last year.

However, several analysts ridiculed what they saw as crude mock-ups, with at least one respected aerospace engineer labeling them technically preposterous and a “big hoax.”

If there is disagreement over how close the North might be to a reliable, working ICBM, there is no doubt that developing one remains a national priority under the leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Pyongyang yesterday announced that Choe Ryong-hae — widely seen as Kim’s effective No. 2 — had been replaced as political chief of the military by Hwang Pyong-so.

“To all intents and purposes, this makes Hwang, who also has close personal ties to Kim Jong-un, the second most powerful man in the country,” said Michael Madden, author and editor of the NK Leadership Watch Web site.

Hwang’s appointment came just days after KCNA reported his promotion to the rank of vice marshall on Monday — a rank shared with Choe and just four others.

It was not immediately clear what had become of Choe, who holds a number of other top positions and was recently appointed vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.

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