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North Korea’s latest missile test may not have been what it claimed

North Korea's Kim Jong Un walks around what the country said was a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile on the launcher on March 24. (KCNA/KNS/AP)

TOKYO — U.S. and South Korean officials are reviewing whether North Korea tested its newest intercontinental ballistic missile last week as it claimed, with mounting public signs that Pyongyang may have exaggerated its milestone.

On Thursday, North Korea tested its first ICBM since 2017 and its most powerful to date, which traveled farther and higher than previous missiles, according to figures released by the South Korean and Japanese governments.

North Korean state media claimed it was a successful test of the Hwasong-17, a huge new missile that the country revealed in October 2020, which experts believe is being designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads. Pyongyang released photos from a variety of angles, and a dramatic and stylized video to show off the launch.

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But a close analysis by independent analysts using satellite imagery, weather forecasts and state media footage has raised questions about North Korea’s claims.

“North Korea’s version of events is misleading at best, and possibly a complete fabrication of a successful Hwasong-17 test at worst,” wrote Colin Zwirko, senior analyst at the Seoul-based North Korea-monitoring website NK News, who first revealed the discrepancies.

The missile launched on Thursday appeared to be a modified version of the Hwasong-15, an older model that is slightly smaller than the Hwasong-17 and was the last ICBM that North Korea tested, in 2017, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive details. The missile was modified to fly higher and farther than it did in 2017, the official said.

Still, the test showed that North Korea is making incremental progress in improving its ICBM capability, the U.S. official said.

South Koreans have officially also reached that conclusion. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Defense said it submitted a report to parliament that they believe the missile was the Hwasong-15. The ministry declined to release the report publicly.

Pyongyang has tested a flurry of missiles lately, most recently on Feb. 27, March 5, March 16 and Thursday.

North Koreans had described the Feb. 27 and March 5 ballistic missile tests as space launches, but South Korean and U.S. officials said the tests were apparently intended to try out parts of a missile system ahead of a full launch of a large new ICBM.

On March 16, North Korea tested a suspected ballistic weapon that appeared to have exploded in midair within minutes of launching, after reaching an altitude of less than 20 kilometers (12 miles). North Korea did not release any information about that launch.

Eight days later, it claimed that it had successfully tested the Hwasong-17, which is now under question.

One theory under discussion among U.S. and South Korean officials is that North Korea may have failed in its long-awaited test of the Hwasong-17 on March 16 and then launched the modified Hwasong-15 the next week and claimed it was a successful test of the Hwasong-17.

According to Tuesday’s official report, South Korean defense officials believe that North Korea may have felt the need to fabricate a successful test of the Hwasong-17 to quell potential domestic skepticism about its weapons program. NK News reported that multiple witnesses had seen the debris from the projectile falling in or near Pyongyang after the failed March 16 test.

On Tuesday, lawmaker Ha Tae-keung, a member of parliament’s defense committee, confirmed that the government believes North Korea fired the Hwasong-17 missile on March 16 and that it exploded at such low height that it could have caused damage to civilians and in fact some homes were hit though no casualties were identified.

“Splinters rained on Pyongyang,” he told reporters after a closed-door committee meeting. “It startled citizens of Pyongyang, unsettling the public sentiment.”

NK News found that when Pyongyang claimed to have released photos and videos taken during Thursday’s test, it probably used images from a test on or before March 16.

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“While North Korea publicly reported that [Thursday’s launch] was of the new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic, intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are closely analyzing it with multiple possibilities in view,” a South Korean military official said Friday in a briefing to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

A senior U.S. defense official declined to describe details of the launch but said on the condition of anonymity in his own briefing that it was “a long-range ballistic missile, and clearly they try to learn from each of these tests and try to develop their capability further.”

Japanese officials, however, said they stand by their initial assessment that the missile was a new type of ICBM. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Monday that “the government believes that the missile fired was a new ICBM-class ballistic missile, and there is no change in our analysis at this time.”

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North Korea has not yet responded to the skepticism over whether it tested the new missile. In fact, on Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un underlined the claim, congratulating those who worked on the missile test and saying they were a part of a “sacred cause” to develop nuclear capability, state media reported.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on Sunday, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, that North Korea may be building a shortcut to a tunnel underground, possibly in an attempt to resume nuclear testing halted in 2017.

Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.