North Korea conducted yet another ballistic missile test on Sunday, this time of a medium-range platform that crashed into the sea east of the reclusive state.

The Pukguksong-2 was first tested in February, but this most recent launch came from a mobile launch platform.  Unlike stationary launch sites, mobile missile launchers can be hidden from satellite or high-altitude aircraft surveillance, and can be very difficult to locate and destroy if war were to break out between North Korea and the United States.

Also setting the Pukguksong-2 apart from other North Korean missile tests is its fuel system.  Sunday’s missile utilizes a solid fuel rather than liquid, which gives it a strategic advantage over other missile designs.  A liquid-fueled ballistic missile requires fueling before launch, offering an opportunity to mount a response to the threat of impending attack, whereas solid fuel rockets can have the fuel on board the missile as it’s transported.  This offers the Pukguksong-2 the ability to launch quickly from a concealed position and limits the amount of time an enemy force (such as the U.S.), has to detect the impending strike.

As a result of Sunday’s successful test, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, declared the missile approved for deployment and ordered mass production of the platform to commence.

Unlike North Korea’s most recent missile test, the Pukguksong-2 seems to boast a range that is shorter than experts may have predicted after its February launch.  North Korea refers to the missile as a “medium-to-long-range” platform, but Sunday’s performance may call that range into question.  According to South Korean officials, the Pukguksong-2 missile traveled 310 miles and reached a maximum altitude of just 348 miles, prompting experts to estimate its maximum range as only around 780 total miles.  In order to be classified as a “medium-range” missile, it must be able to cover 620-1,900 miles, and long range missiles must surpass that 1,900 mile mark.

“If this test were conducted with a very light payload, as North Korea is believed to have done in past tests, the actual range with a warhead could be significantly shorter,” David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the media.

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By comparing those figures to the test conducted by North Korea last Sunday, in which their Hwasong-12 missile reached a peak altitude of 1,312 miles above the Earth’s surface, and you can begin to appreciate Wright’s position.  Despite reaching an altitude of more than a thousand miles higher than this Sunday’s missile test, the Hwasong-12 is still only capable of potentially reaching U.S. bases in Guam – still thousands of miles short of the closest targets on the mainland U.S.

However, this test seems to have had little to do with total distance covered, and was instead intended as a test of their reentry vehicle, which could potentially be used to bring a nuclear warhead back through the atmosphere and to its intended target on a different, longer range platform.  The reentry vehicle reportedly performed as it was intended, meaning the Kim regime’s ballistic missiles are increasing in technical capability.

Again, this test does not indicate a sudden ability to strike at more U.S. assets, but rather something possibly even more dire: a shift in North Korea’s ballistic missile program toward an increasing level of technological complexity and the successful integration of those advances in their weapons platforms.   This test should be seen less as a demonstration of a specific model of missile, and more as evidence that they now possess another of the key components necessary to build an ICBM capable of placing mainland U.S. targets in their crosshairs.

If an ICBM were a race car, North Korea just showed us that it’s got a steering column, last week’s test demonstrated that they’re on their way to producing the engine, and we can only hope international political pressure will soon begin to show them the brakes.

 

Image courtesy of Reuters