By resuming ballistic testing activities after a year-long hiatus, North Korea has demonstrated a potentially nuclear weapon that shows how it continues to expand its military capabilities in a diplomatic stalemate with the United States.
The two short-range missiles the North fired into the sea this week were its first significant provocation since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, who responded with restraint to the launches on Thursday, saying “there will be answers s ‘they choose to step up. “
Since a provocative attempt at North Korean nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017, the United States has mainly focused on North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles that pose a direct threat to the American homeland.
But experts say North Korea’s growing arsenal of shorter-range solid-fuel weapons is more destabilizing for US allies South Korea and Japan. And the latest launches have underscored the North’s efforts to improve its capabilities to launch nuclear strikes and crush missile defense systems.
North Korean state media said on Friday that the weapons it fired a day earlier from its eastern coast were a new type of “guided tactical projectile” that borrowed core technology from an earlier system.
According to the Korea Central News Agency, the new solid-fuel missiles, designed to be fired from land vehicles, could be armed with warheads weighing up to 2.5 tons. During Thursday’s testing, the missiles demonstrated maneuverable low-altitude flight and accurately hit a sea target 600 kilometers (372 miles) away.
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Analysts say the North has likely tested an improved version of a system inspired by Russian mobile ballistic missiles Iskander. Their flatter trajectories compared to conventional ballistic weapons make them fly at an altitude where the air is dense enough to allow maneuverability. The unpredictability makes them harder to intercept by missile defense systems, experts say.
The South Korean military took an unusually long time to release its assessment of the launches Thursday before announcing hours later that the missiles had traveled up to 450 kilometers (279 miles).
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Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Seoul University of North Korean Studies, said the gap between the South Korean and North Korean ratings perhaps shows how difficult it is for radar systems to accurately track these missiles during flight.
“Even if our military is wrong, it doesn’t matter right now because they could easily adjust their assessment after analyzing the satellite data,” said Kim, a former South Korean military official. “But how are you going to do this in time of war?”
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Whether the missiles traveled 450 kilometers or 600 kilometers, that’s more than enough range to strike any corner of mainland South Korea. And experts say efforts in the North to arm them with huge warheads indicate they’re designed for nuclear strikes.
The tests came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a ruling party convention in January, vowed to strengthen his nuclear deterrence in the face of US-led sanctions and pressure and issued a large wishlist of military equipment including new tactical nuclear weapons.
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If North Korea successfully develops an operational system, these missiles will offer the possibility of launching tactical nuclear attacks on military bases and other strategic targets in South Korea, said Yang Wook, a military expert who teaches the ‘Hannam University of South Korea.
“We have been saying for a long time that it would be difficult for North Korea to put nuclear warheads on (short-range) missiles if it fails to make them small and light enough,” Yang said. But North Korea wouldn’t have to do it anymore if its missiles could reliably deliver a 2.5-ton warhead, which Yang said would be more than three times the weight of most North Korean missile warheads. existing.
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Lee Choon Geun, a missile expert at the Institute for Science and Technology Policy of South Korea, said the missiles would pose a huge threat to South Korea even if they were conventionally armed.
“A conventional 2.5 ton warhead would be enough to destroy deeply constructed bunkers,” he said. “This capability would also allow for something more powerful than tactical nuclear weapons, possibly thermonuclear devices.”
North Korea is used to testing new US administrations with weapons demonstrations aimed at forcing Americans back to the negotiating table.
Kim Jong Un has nothing to show so far for his ambitious summits with former President Donald Trump, which collapsed in 2019 due to disagreements over the exchange of the release of crippling state-led sanctions. United against North Korea and the North’s disarmament measures.
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While Thursday’s launches were less provocative than the nuclear and ICBM tests in 2017 that inspired war fears before the North moved to diplomacy with the Trump administration in 2018, most experts believe the North is likely to reduce its testing activities.
The North carried out more than a dozen short-range launches against a backdrop of stalled diplomacy in 2019 and 2020 as Trump rejected the tests despite the threat they posed to South Korea and Japan. The United States is stationing a total of 80,000 troops in the two Asian countries, at the heart of the American military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
“These missiles are no joke because it seems pretty clear that they are aimed at mounting nuclear warheads” and evading missile defense systems, said Duyeon Kim, senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. .
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She said the nature of these missiles would force the United States and South Korea to develop an effective response by returning to their normal scale and scope of joint military exercises, which were scaled back under the Trump administration to make way for diplomacy.
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