North Korea yesterday said that it carried out a “very important test” at its long-range rocket launch site, which it reportedly rebuilt after having partially dismantled it after entering denuclearization talks with the US last year.
The announcement came amid dimming prospects for a resumption of negotiations, with the North warning it would seek “a new way” if it fails to get major US concessions by year’s end. North Korea has said its resumption of nuclear and long-range missile tests depends on the US.
Saturday’s test at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground will have “an important effect on changing the strategic position of [North Korea] once again in the near future,” an unidentified spokesman from the North Korean Academy of National Defense Science said in a statement, which was carried by the Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea did not say what the test included.
Analyst Kim Dong-yub at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies said that North Korea likely tested for the first time a solid-fuel engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
The use of solid fuel increases a weapon’s mobility and reduces the amount of launch preparation time.
The long-range rockets that North Korea used in either ICBM launches or satellite liftoffs in recent years all used liquid propellants.
CNN on Friday reported that a new satellite image indicated that North Korea might be preparing to resume testing engines used to power satellite launchers and ICBMs at the site.
South Korean Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo said later yesterday in a brief statement that Seoul and Washington are closely monitoring activities at the site.
On Saturday, US President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in discussed developments related to North Korea and the two leaders committed to continue close communication, the White House said in a statement.
Moon’s office also released a similar statement, saying that the two leaders had a 30-minute phone conversation at Trump’s request.
Saturday’s test “is meant to improve military capabilities and to shore up domestic pride and legitimacy,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “With the activity at Sohae, Pyongyang is also trying to raise international concerns that it may intensify provocations and walk away from denuclearization talks next year.”
The Sohae launching center in Tongchang-ri, a seaside region in western North Korea, is where the North has carried out banned satellite launches in recent years, resulting in worldwide condemnation and UN sanctions over claims that they were disguised tests of long-range missile technology.
North Korea has said its satellite launches are part of its peaceful space development program.
Many outside experts say ballistic missiles and rockets used in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology.
None of North Korea’s three ICBM tests in 2017 were conducted at the Sohae site, but observers said that it was used to test engines for ICBMs.
After North Korea opened nuclear talks with the US last year, Washington and Seoul said Pyongyang had dismantled a rocket engine-testing facility at its Tongchang-ri site as part of disarmament steps that include closing the country’s underground nuclear testing site and suspending ICBM and nuclear tests.
However, South Korean spy agency and some US experts in March said that North Korea was restoring the facility, the assessments that rose doubts over whether it is committed to denuclerization.
US-North Korea diplomacy largely remains deadlocked since the second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam in February due to disputes over how much sanctions relief the North must get in return for dismantling its key nuclear complex — a limited disarmament step.
North Korea has since warned that the US must abandon hostile policies and come out with new acceptable proposals by the end of this year or it would take an unspecified new path.
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