North Korea conducts key test to build more nimble ICBM

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversees a test of what the North Korean government calls a “high-thrust solid-fuel engine” at the Sohae satellite launch site on Dec. 15.North Korea News Agency/The Associated Press

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversaw tests of a new strategic weapon called a “high-thrust solid-fuel engine,” a development that could give him a more mobile and harder-to-reach arsenal, state media reported Friday Intercontinental ballistic missiles in the continental United States

Thursday’s “static launch test” of a missile engine at a rocket launch facility in the country’s northwest was the first such test by North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency reported. It said the test “provided a solid scientific and technological guarantee for the development of another new type of strategic weapon system”.

Kim Jong-un praised the scientists and technicians involved in the testing process, saying he expected the new weapon to be built “in the shortest possible time,” KCNA said.

North Korea was likely referring to a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, one of a series of high-tech weapons systems Kim Jong-un vowed to unveil at a key meeting of his ruling Workers’ Party early last year. Other weapons systems Kim has promised to build include multiple warhead missiles, underwater-launched nuclear missiles and spy satellites.

The latest engine test showed North Korea’s determination to fulfill Kim Jong-un’s vow to develop such an advanced weapons system despite pandemic-related difficulties at home and international pressure, led by the United States, to curb its nuclear program. North Korea has tested a barrage of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in recent months, including last month’s launch of the longest-range, multi-warhead Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile it is developing. Some experts say North Korea will eventually use its expanded nuclear arsenal to seek relief from U.S. sanctions and other concessions.

“We’ve been looking forward to this kind of test for some time. The large diameter solid propellant rocket motor will allow North Korea to deploy larger submarine-launched missiles and, more importantly, more survivable and responsive ICBMs, said Ankit Panda, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Unlike liquid-propellant missiles, solid-propellant missiles are fueled at the time of manufacture, so they can be released faster in war, all else being equal,” Panda said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they want to do additional testing and development on these motors before going to flight tests.”

The fuel for the solid-propellant rocket is already contained inside, which helps reduce launch preparation time, improves the weapon’s maneuverability, and makes it harder for outsiders to perceive what’s happening before launch. North Korea already has a growing fleet of short-range solid-fuel ballistic missiles aimed at key targets in South Korea, including U.S. bases there.

Thursday’s test was to verify the specific technical characteristics of the high-thrust solid-fuel engine based on thrust vector control technology, KCNA reported. It said that the test results showed that various technical indicators proved its reliability and stability.

Joseph Dempsey, assistant fellow for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said it was difficult to assess North Korea’s claimed thrust output. But, he said, “of potential interest is the so-called ‘thrust vectoring technology,’ where images show that the gimbaled exhaust nozzles can redirect thrust to effectively steer the missile.”

He said it was a more advanced thrust-vectoring method than the previous method traditionally used for North Korea’s solid-motor missiles.

“Thus, testing the gimbaled nozzle could represent an important technical pathway for North Korea to achieve its stated goals for a solid-engine ICBM,” Dempsey said. “However, what other technical challenges remain and how much flight testing of such a system remains far remains unknown.”

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