North Korea preparing to test-fire ‘monster missile’

North Korea preparing to test-fire ‘monster missile’

North Korea will likely test fire a new “monster missile” in the next few weeks, Washington has warned, in what would be a major escalation of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

The massive Hwasong-17 was first unveiled at a military parade in 2020 but has not been test-fired since. It is potentially capable of carrying multiple warheads to anywhere in the US.

The Pentagon said it was likely to be tested imminently after revealing that two recent missile launches on February 27 and March 5 – part of a flurry of military activity so far this year – involved trialling parts of its weapons system.  

“The purpose of these tests, which did not demonstrate [intercontinental ballistic missile] range, was likely to evaluate this new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch,” said the Department of Defence in a statement.

Experts believe that Hwasong-17 will get its debut in the coming weeks, ahead of the April 15 ‘Day of the Sun’ national holiday when North Korea marks the birth anniversary of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

In response, South Korea and the US said they were considering the resumption of their “Blue Lightning” joint military drills involving American nuclear-capable bombers on the Korean Peninsula.

If the US warnings are true, it would be Pyongyang’s first ICBM test since tensions last skyrocketed in 2017 and is a sign of how much the situation on the Korean peninsula has deteriorated in recent months.

On top of several high-profile tests involving hypersonic weapons and a long-range cruise missile, the North also appears to be restoring underground tunnels in Punggye-ri, a nuclear test site that was reportedly decommissioned in May 2018.

“A new crisis with North Korea is quickly brewing,” according to Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kim is fixated on “bigger-ticket items that could significantly harm US, South Korean, and Japanese interests by expanding the quality and quantity of the nuclear threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear forces,” he said.

The Hwasong-17 has since been dubbed a “monster” by analysts since it was first displayed in 2020, due to its enormous diameter of almost 2.5 metres and total mass when fully fuelled of up to 110,000 kg.

Its transporter vehicle requires 11 axles and, said Mr Panda, it is “the largest liquid-propellant missile deployed in a road-mobile configuration in human history”.

Of particular concern if it becomes operational is its ability to launch multiple warheads, inflicting more devastation and making it easier to evade missile defence systems.

Nuclear disarmament talks with Seoul and Washington collapsed in February 2019, and since January 2021 Kim has been signalling his intention to eventually return to full-scale ICBM testing.

Now it seems he is finally ready. 

“The check is coming soon, I suspect. Given the US assessment of the two most recent tests, I’d expect the odds of a full-scale ICBM test involving the new Hwasong-17 booster to be quite likely,” said Mr Panda.

If it does, we may not know about it immediately. 

The tests on February 26 and March 5 are now believed to be preliminary launches to test parts of the ICBM were initially concealed as reconnaissance satellite development tests and analysts believe any future launches may be conducted the same way.

The test would be a major escalation for the North Korean regime. 

Unlike his father, who used missile testing sparingly and for political purposes, “Kim Jong-un is actually trying to get these missiles and technology to an operational level,” said Jenny Town, director of the Stimson Centre’s 38 North Programme.

“He is testing for performance. It’s not for political showmanship.”

With little reason to come back to the negotiating table right now, Kim is looking to take advantage of current events, both regionally and globally

South Korea has just elected a hawkish new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who wants closer ties with the US and a stronger stance against Pyongyang. Kim is hoping to put him on the back foot from day one and “demonstrate that he has strategic dominance over South Korea,” said Patrick Cronin, the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute.

“Yoon is an inexperienced politician, he’ll be surrounded by great experts, but from day one it will be a baptism of fire for him.”

The conflict in Europe is also diverting attention from Pyongyang. Kim is looking to use “the diversion of Moscow’s war in Ukraine to get away with a lot,” he added.

But it was a strategy that could rebound. 

“There is a heavy appetite for strengthening defences, in Congress, in Seoul, in Tokyo, in Canberra, in Europe,” said Mr Cronin. “North Korea is playing with fire.”

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Last Update: Sat, 19 Mar 22 06:52:03