North Korea’s latest missile test may have been more than just another failure.
U.S. Pacific Command reported that the ballistic missile, which has yet to be identified, “did not leave North Korean territory.” The weapon reportedly broke up over North Korea several minutes after launch, but it may not have been a botch.
Saturday’s missile failure may have been a deliberate explosion, South Korean government officials told the Korea Times. “We don’t believe the mid-air explosion was an accident,” South Korean cable news channel YTN quoted government officials as saying. “It’s believed the explosion was a test to develop a nuclear weapon different from existing ones.” The theory is that the North may have been testing a nuclear warhead.
That North Korea launched the missile across its territory from the west coast was a little unusual, leading some to suspect that perhaps the North intentionally kept the weapon from splashing down in the sea where a U.S. Navy carrier strike group is stationed.
The missile, which was fired from Pukchang Airfield in Pyeongannam-do, South Pyeongan Province, reached a maximum altitude of 44 miles, well above the stabilization altitude for medium- and long-range missiles. Military experts told the Korea Times that the odds an internal mechanical failure caused the explosion are “very low.”
A maximum altitude of 44 miles is “beyond anything a missile that failed during powered flight would be likely to reach,” John Schilling, an analyst for 38 North, an independent research site run by the U.S.-Korea Institute, argued in a recent report.
Multiple media reports on the recent test claimed that the missile may have been a KN-17, a new North Korean weapons system. Some observers suspect that the KN-17 may be a “carrier killer,” but the exact purpose of the missile is unclear.
Schilling suggests that the test may have been a failure, but he suspects that North Korea may be experimenting with Maneuvering Reentry Vehicles (MaRV). While this could be applied to new anti-ship ballistic missiles, it could also be used to enhance weapons for strikes on logistics and command centers, such as the allied military bases in South Korea and Japan. It also might be employed to evade anti-missile systems, like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield that just came online in South Korea. Failures with MaRV technology would be expected early on given the complex nature of this type of rocketry.
There are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the North’s recent weapons test, but Pyongyang appears to be making progress and advancing its ballistic missile program.
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