North Korea has tested a high-thrust solid-fuel engine, which experts say will allow for faster and more mobile ballistic missile launches as it seeks to develop a new strategic weapon and accelerates its nuclear and missile programs.
The test, which was overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, took place on Thursday at North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, which has been used to test missile technologies such as rocket engines and space launch vehicles, according to the official KCNA news agency on Friday.
Experts say the test appears aimed at developing a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) given the thrust of the engine, which the North said was “the first of its kind” in the country.
North Korea has been working to build more solid-fuel missiles that are more stable and can be launched with almost no warning or preparation time.
“Compared to liquid-propellant weapons, solid-fuel missiles are more mobile, quicker to launch, and easier to conceal and use during a conflict,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.
“Once deployed, the technology would make North Korea’s nuclear forces more versatile, survivable, and dangerous.”
Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, said the latest test signals North Korea’s push to build more powerful ICBMs and submarine-launched ballisitc missiles (SLBMs).
“We cannot rule out the possibility of the North test-firing an ICBM with a new solid-fuel rocket next year,” Lim said.
Developing a solid-fuel ICBM was part of the North’s five military tasks rolled out at its key party meeting last year.
After overseeing the test, Kim said “another important problem in carrying out the five priority tasks” was successfully solved, and expressed “expectation that another new-type strategic weapon would be made in the shortest span of time,” according to KCNA.
In one of the photos released by KCNA, Kim was seen smiling with a cigarette in one hand as large smoke cloud is visible behind him.
North Korea has conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests this year, including an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, despite international bans and sanctions.
A new report by the U.S.-based Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS) said commercial satellite imagery shows construction of what appears to be a horizontal engine test stand, describing it as the “first of its kind” at the Sohae station that would boost the facility’s capabilities.
“We are concerned about North Korea’s media report, and are monitoring its activities,” an official at South Korea’s unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said.
The latest test comes as International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi is in Seoul for talks with South Korean officials during which he vowed an all-out effort to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme.
During his meeting with Grossi, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed concerns over North Korea’s “race” to advance its nuclear and missile programmes, calling for the U.N. agency’s cooperation to deter Pyongyang from further provocations.
South Korean and U.S. officials have said the North has completed preparations for a potential nuclear test, which would be the first since 2017.