North Korea mis­sile test is a huge step for­ward

Cape Breton Post - - Weekend - BY HYUNG-JIN KIM

Repub­lic Of North Korea’s lat­est bal­lis­tic mis­sile test may be nearly as big a deal as its pro­pa­ganda ma­chine claims.

Al­though out­side ex­perts see sev­eral places where North Korea is likely stretch­ing the truth, the mis­sile launched Sun­day ap­pears to be the most pow­er­ful the coun­try has ever tested. Some an­a­lysts be­lieve the mis­sile, if proven in fur­ther tests, could reach Alaska and Hawaii if fired on a nor­mal, in­stead of a lofted, tra­jec­tory.

There’s also a po­lit­i­cal vic­tory for North Korea. The test gives a boost to leader Kim Jong Un as he seeks to show his peo­ple that he’s stand­ing up to Amer­ica and South Korea. And it also lifts sci­en­tists in the au­thor­i­tar­ian na­tion who are work­ing to build an ar­se­nal of mis­siles with nu­clear war­heads that can reach the U.S. main­land. They’re not there yet, but tests like this are the nuts and bolts a suc­cess­ful weapons pro­gram needs.

Here’s a closer look at what hap­pened in Sun­day’s mis­sile launch, which came only a few days af­ter the inauguration of a new South Korean pres­i­dent, and why it’s viewed as a wor­ry­ing de­vel­op­ment by North Korea’s neigh­bours and Washington.

THE MIS­SILE

Even be­fore North Korea gave its ac­count of what hap­pened, the launch caught the eye of ex­perts.

Tokyo clocked the mis­sile as trav­el­ling about 800 kilo­me­tres (500 miles) and reach­ing a height of 2,000 kilo­me­tres (1,240 miles) dur­ing its halfhour flight.

That is a higher al­ti­tude and longer flight time than any other mis­sile the coun­try has test­launched, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral South Korean an­a­lysts reached by The As­so­ci­ated Press.

North Korea’s state me­dia gen­er­ally con­firmed those es­ti­mates. It said the newly de­vel­oped Hwa­song-12 flew as high as 2,111 kilo­me­tres (1,310 miles) be­fore land­ing in a tar­geted area in the ocean about 787 kilo­me­tres (490 miles) from the launch site.

North Korea said it fired the mis­sile at a high an­gle to avoid neigh­bour­ing coun­tries.

If it had been fired at a nor­mal an­gle, an­a­lysts say, it could have flown much far­ther — es­ti­mates vary be­tween 4,000 and 7,000 kilo­me­tres (2,500 and 4,350 miles), the up­per num­ber putting Alaska and pos­si­bly Hawaii within strik­ing dis­tance.

“This is a very un­com­fort­able de­vel­op­ment for the United States,” said Lee Ill­woo, a Seoul­based com­men­ta­tor on mil­i­tary is­sues.

Be­fore Sun­day’s launch, an in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile called Musu­dan was thought to have the long­est po­ten­tial range among the mis­siles that North Korea has test-fired — about 3,500 kilo­me­tres (2,180 miles). That could strike U.S. mil­i­tary bases in Guam. Dur­ing a 2016 test, the Musu­dan reached a height of 1,410 kilo­me­tres (880 miles).

In re­cent years, North Korea suc­cess­fully put satel­lites into or­bit twice aboard long-range rock­ets in what the U.N. called a dis­guised test of long-range mis­sile tech­nol­ogy. But the coun­try has never car­ried out test flights of those rock­ets’ mil­i­tary ver­sions.

THE NUKE Out­siders ex­press more skep­ti­cism about North Korea’s nu­clear war­head claims.

North Korea says the mis­sile can carry a heavy nu­clear war­head. It also claims to have per­fected the war­head’s hom­ing and det­o­na­tion sys­tems un­der dif­fi­cult re-en­try cir­cum­stances.

As with much of North Korea’s se­cre­tive arms pro­gram, this couldn’t be in­de­pen­dently con­firmed.

But ex­perts have long be­lieved that man­u­fac­tur­ing a com­pact war­head for a lon­grange mis­sile ca­pa­ble of strik­ing the United States is one of the last re­main­ing tech­nolo­gies North Korea has yet to master.

Some ex­perts say the mis­sile’s claimed abil­ity to carry heavy war­heads would al­low North Korea to de­ploy larger bombs or mul­ti­ple war­heads po­ten­tially ca­pa­ble of strik­ing dif­fer­ent tar­gets. THE RE-EN­TRY VE­HI­CLE There’s also skep­ti­cism about North Korea’s claims about its re-en­try tech­nol­ogy, which is needed to re­turn a war­head to the at­mos­phere from space so it can hit its in­tended tar­get.

De­spite North Korea’s claim that Sun­day’s test sim­u­lated a re-en­try sit­u­a­tion, South Korean de­fence of­fi­cials say the North prob­a­bly has yet to master the tech­nol­ogy.

“There is enor­mous pres­sure when a mis­sile re-en­ters the at­mos­phere ... If (elec­tri­cal) cir­cuits break and a trig­ger de­vice fails to det­o­nate nu­clear fuel, you can imag­ine that only some twisted metal will fall on Alaska or Hawaii, even if North Korea fires mis­siles at them,” said Kim Dong-yub, an an­a­lyst at Seoul’s In­sti­tute for Far Eastern Stud­ies.

Another im­por­tant point: One test, even a suc­cess­ful one, does not com­pletely prove a mis­sile’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

A re­li­able mis­sile must en­dure at least 10 suc­cess­ful test launches, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Chae Yeon-seok at South Korea’s Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy.

KOREAN CEN­TRAL NEWS AGENCY/KOREA NEWS SER­VICE VIA AP

This May 14, 2017, photo dis­trib­uted by the North Korean gov­ern­ment shows the “Hwa­song-12,” a new type of bal­lis­tic mis­sile at an undis­closed lo­ca­tion in North Korea. In­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ists were not given ac­cess to cover the event de­picted in this photo.

KOREAN CEN­TRAL NEWS AGENCY/KOREA NEWS SER­VICE VIA AP

This im­age made from video of an un­dated still im­age broad­cast in a news bul­letin by North Korea’s KRT on May 15 shows leader Kim Jong Un at what was said to be a mis­sile test site at an undis­closed lo­ca­tion in North Korea.

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