South Korean and the United States intelligence points to North Korea allegedly making preparations to begin tests on another intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), possibly the Hwasong-17, in April, said government sources to a South Korean domestic media outlet on March 14.
“Though we can’t say definitively when a missile will be launched, we have been keeping close tabs on the possibility,” said an anonymous government source to Yonhap News Agency. They suggest that weather conditions and other variables may alter the schedule of North Korea’s launch. However, according to North Korean Studies Scholar Ahn Chan-il, these tests may happen around April 15, Kim Il Sung’s birthday, as North Korea tends to commemorate important events with military parades or launches.
North Korea is expected to fire its ICBMs from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) at a lower trajectory. This makes detection through spy satellites more difficult compared to ICBMs fired using a launchpad.
The news comes after the two countries claimed that North Korea test-launched ICBMs using its new ICBM system last February 26 and March 5, which were concealed and labeled as reconnaissance satellite development tests when they were actually preliminary launches to test parts of an ICBM. The test launch reportedly did not demonstrate the ICBM range. Furthermore, it was unclear whether the tests used all stages of the missile, although reports have surfaced that only one stage was activated.
“The purpose of these tests, which did not demonstrate ICBM range, was likely to evaluate this new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch,” Department of Defense Spokesman John Kirby said.
The country has not tested an ICBM since 2017; however, it did test an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) named Hwasong-12, which was also first revealed in 2017 last January 30. 2017 proved to be a major breakthrough for North Korea Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un to show his military can allegedly threaten the US mainland. Experts believe that the last two suspected ICBM component tests involved the Hwasong-17 ICBM, which is said to be the largest road-mobile missile. The United Nations currently prohibit North Korea from testing these ballistic missiles; however, it seems that North Korea has not been at all deterred by it.
Increasing pressure from the North will test the character and political will of incoming South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who is taking his office next May. The soon-to-be President is a conservative and has committed to promoting an aggressive brand of foreign policy that will deepen the US-South Korean alliance. Yoon has also vowed to buy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defense systems to shoot certain North Korean missiles down. However, it is important to note that THAAD is mainly used for intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs); however, it can be equipped with a forward sensor for ICBMs and can intercept threats at lower altitudes.
“Kim can both set the tone for inter-Korean dynamics and gauge the incoming Yoon administration’s threshold for North Korean provocations,” said Soo Kim, a policy analyst with Rand Corp. “And depending on Yoon’s response, Kim will either temper or dial-up his aggression.”
It is important to remember that the two countries are still at war (technically) as the Korean War only ended through a ceasefire and not a full-on peace treaty, making the situation in the Korean peninsula highly unpredictable, especially with the more aggressive incoming South Korean president.
The Hwasong-17 ICBM System
North Korea first unveiled the Hwasong-17 (or Hwasong-16, reports remain inconclusive according to Oxford Analytica and Reuters) at a military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s Workers’ Party in October 2020. Analysts noted that the new missile was “considerably larger” than the Hwasong-15, which was tested in 2017.
The second time it was seen was at a defense exhibition in Pyongyang in October 2021. Footage shows the missile transported on an 11-axle vehicle and was determined to be a two-stage missile. However, its exact capabilities remain unknown. It is said to be one of the largest road-mobile ICBMs worldwide if proven operational.
The missile is estimated to be around 7.9 and 9.5 ft. in diameter and roughly 79 to 85 ft. long. This data is used to predict the device’s lift-off mass, which falls somewhere between 180,000 to 330,000 lb. when fully loaded.
Even with uncertainties in their estimates, the program believes the Hwasong-17 can deliver a very large warhead or two or four smaller reentry vehicles that carry a scaled-down bomb design. Another configuration is to load a large warhead with lightweight decoys to help penetrate US missile defense systems.
The US’ Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) has the capabilities to defend against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which may contain nuclear, chemical, biological, or conventional warheads. It reportedly has 44 interceptors, including Ground-based Interceptors at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. 40 GBIs are located in Ft. Greely, and four are in Vandenberg.
Observers claim that the missile can be used for a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) system, which has the potential to allow a single device to drop nuclear warheads on different targets.
North Korea Rebuilding Its Nuclear Facilities
Recent reports have shown North Korean activity in formerly inactive nuclear facilities in Yongbyon and Punggye-ri. Director General Rafael Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) under the UN announced that the agency detected indications of activity at the 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon. The said site is capable of producing weapons-grade Plutonium.
“We continue to observe construction activities at the Yongbyon site, including construction of an annex to the reported centrifuge enrichment facility, the purpose of which has yet to be determined,” said Grossi.
According to the IAEA Chief, there were also no indications of activities at Kangson uranium enrichment facility and Pyongsan uranium mine and concentration plant.
South Korean authorities said that North Korea appears to be restoring its underground tunnels in Punggye-ri. According to reports, the tunnels were previously a nuclear test site before it was demolished in May 2018.
“The continuation of the DPRK’s (North Korea) nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” Grossi said.
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