When North Korea launched three ballistic missiles this week, it wasn’t just a show of force toward the world leaders gathered in China for a meeting of the G-20. It was also a test of what may be new technology to thwart missile defense systems and provide Pyongyang with an edge in an eventual conflict with the United States.
Monday’s missiles were medium-range weapons that appeared to be outfitted with a detachable warhead, said Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. If confirmed, such a warhead would provide North Korean forces with a greater capability to thwart American missile defense systems set to be deployed to South Korea.
Moreover, of the three missiles launched Monday, two were fired nearly simultaneously. The simultaneous firing makes it more difficult for a missile defense system to intercept the projectiles. And when a warhead detaches from the rocket that carries it, it becomes a smaller target and sometimes travels at a greater speed, making it much more difficult to hit.
Amid a flurry of missile tests, North Korea has significantly improved its arsenal of long-distance weapons, and with each such test, Pyongyang appears to be bolstering its force with a clear motive in mind. “I think they are serious about putting together a force capable of delivering nuclear weapons in a conflict with the U.S.,” Lewis said.
The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday condemned the missile launch and warned that the world body would impose “further significant measures” if North Korea continues to violate prohibitions on nuclear and ballistic missile tests. The council significantly expanded sanctions against North Korea in March, following its nuclear test in January, the country’s fourth.
Analysts are currently poring over images and a fairly spectacular propaganda video released by North Korean state media showing the launch of what appear to be modified Nodong or Rodong missiles (the names are interchangeable and describe the same weapon).
A smiling Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, welcomed the news on the front page ofRodong Sinmun.
As North Korea is tweaking the design of its Nodong/Rodong missile, it has also expanded its capability to deliver weapons at long range.
Last month, North Korea launched a solid fuel submarine-launched ballistic missile. That weapon has a possible range of up to 600 miles, and once a submarine sails out sea with such a weapon, it could easily strike an anti-missile battery from behind its radar’s field of vision. The so-called THAAD system — short for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense — that is planned to deploy to South Korea would be a sitting duck with little or no ability to defend itself.
The development of reliable solid fuel rockets represents another important step forward forPyongyang. Unlike liquid-fueled rockets, their solid-fueled counterparts can be ready to fire at much shorter notice.
Earlier this summer, North Korea carried out its first successful test of an innovative intermediate-range missile known as the Musudan. That missile made use of a Soviet rocket engine design and more efficient propellant to deliver a range that may soon be long enough to hit U.S. forces in Guam with a nuclear bomb.
Back in February, North Korea launched a satellite into space that likely served as a test for long-range missile technology.
In short, the North Korean missile program continues its steady march forward, and Washington may be powerless to prevent it.