North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has overseen the test of a solid-fuel rocket engine, state media announced Thursday, claiming a major technological advancement that could greatly increase Pyongyang’s ability to strike other countries, including the United States.
Experts are working to verify North Korea’s latest boast, but, if true, it would mark another worrying development in the state’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
“This is dangerous,” said Melissa Hanham, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.
“Based on the images we have, we can’t say whether this is functional,” she said. “But at this point, we need to stop thinking about whether they have this technology or not, because if they don’t have it now, they will have it soon, and we need to start preparing for that day.”
North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Thursday published a photo of Kim with the rocket against a graffiti-style sign that read: “Ruthless thunderbolt of fire for the American imperialists and Park Geun-hye’s clique!” Park is the president of South Korea and has been adopting an increasingly tough line against the North.
KCNA said Kim ordered the launch of a “high-power solid-fuel rocket engine” that was “designed and manufactured by the Korean style.”
“The engine spewed out huge flames with a deafening boom,” it said.
The engine would “boost the power of ballistic rockets capable of mercilessly striking hostile forces,” the report said, noting Kim’s “great pleasure and satisfaction” with what KCNA said was a successful test.
North Korea’s rockets and missiles have been powered by a Soviet-era liquid-fuel engine, which has to be loaded at the launch site. That takes time, which gives satellites an opportunity to spot activity taking place.
But solid-fuel rockets can be deployed much more quickly, meaning there could be much less warning — if any — of a North Korean missile launch, experts said.
If solid-fuel rockets are on mobile launchers, which can be hidden in tunnels or buildings and wheeled out when they’re needed, they could be deployed anywhere at short notice.
Analysts are now poring over photos to estimate the size of the rocket and glean any other details they can about its capability. But in Seoul, South Korea’s defense ministry was taking the claim seriously.
Moon Sang-gyun, a spokesman for the defense ministry, told reporters Thursday that the military is preparing countermeasures.
Separately, Park ordered the South Korean military to be “fully prepared to aggressively cope with North Korea’s reckless provocations,” her spokesman said Thursday. The previous day, North Korea had threatened to “scorch” South Korea’s presidential offices.
North Korea has a habit of making boasts that do not appear true as it continues work on nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
In recent months Pyongyang has claimed to have developed a hydrogen bomb and a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Neither claim is borne out by seismic data and photo analysis, experts say.
This month, Kim claimed that North Korea was able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead. Analysts were skeptical, although U.S. military leaders say it is only a matter of time until North Korea masters this technology.
North Korea is clearly making progress in some areas. It is conducting frequent medium- and long-range missile tests, and every test enables its scientists to fix problems and improve capability.
This should be a concern for American policymakers, Hanham said.
“We have a laundry list of things that we don’t want North Korea to have. We don’t want them to be road mobile, we don’t want them to have longer ranges, we don’t want them to have compact warheads, we don’t want them to have solid-fuel motors,” she said. “The North Koreans are basically going down that list and ticking everything off.”