North Korea showed off yet another newly developed missile last week, indicating that the regime has been focusing on the modernization of its conventional weapons system as nuclear negotiations with the United States have remained stalled, experts said Monday.
On Saturday, North Korea fired two short-range projectiles from its eastern coastal city of Hamhung in South Hamgyong Province into the East Sea, the fifth such launch since July 25 and seventh firing so far this year.
Both flew around 400 kilometers at a maximum altitude of 48 km and a top speed of around Mach 6.1, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
While the military simply said that they were presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles, photos released by the North the following day showed that they seem to be another novel type of surface-to-surface missile that has never been released.
"The missile fired on Aug. 10 appears to be a new type of short-range tactical ground-based ballistic missile, different from its version of Iskander and the large-caliber multiple launch rocket system North Korea recently showed off," Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University's Far East Institute, said.
Iskander, originated from Russia, is a solid-fuel surface-to-surface missile. North Korea appears to have successfully developed its version, codenamed KN-23, with a range of around 500 kilometers, after rounds of tests this year, having first revealed it during a military parade in February 2018.
Reporting the firing of "a new missile" under the guidance of its leader Kim Jong-un, the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also said Sunday that the weapon "has advantageous tactical character different from the existing weapon systems" and was "developed to suit the terrain condition of our country."
Images released by North Korean state media showed that the missiles, fired from a caterpillar-type transporter erector launcher (TEL), bear some outward similarities to the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile system manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
"Like the ATACMS, the North's new missile could be capable of spewing shrapnel over a large area, which could pose an indiscriminate hazard to civilians," Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense Security Forum in Seoul, said.
The new missile also put the entire Korean peninsula within its range, he added.
The location of the latest launch, the city of Hamhung, is some 400 kilometers from South Korea's city of Daejeon, where major military facilities are located nearby, and around 450 km away from the South's Seongju base, where the U.S. advanced missile defense system of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery is deployed.
"But what the North launched on Saturday is different from the ATACMS given its flight pattern and speed, among others. We are analyzing the exact identity," a military source said.
The ATACMS is known to have a range of around 300 kilometers with a maximum range of around Mach 3.
This photo released on Aug. 11, 2019, by the North's Korean Central News Agency captures its leader Kim Jong-un (L) watching the test-firing of missiles that took place the previous day. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)
The latest revelation would mark the third known fresh item added to the list of North Korea's short-range ground-based missiles this year.
During its major weapons test that began in May this year after a 17-month hiatus, the communist country launched its version of Iskander at least four times -- on May 4, May 9, July 25 and Aug. 6 -- by tuning their range and altitude, according to military officers.
Their flight distances varied from around 240 to 600 km, with maximum altitudes ranging from 37 to 50 km.
The North also launched two similar projectiles on both July 31 and Aug. 2 off the east coast, which flew around 220 to 250 km at a maximum altitude of 20 to 30 km, according to the JCS. But the North said the launches were of a "newly developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system."
So far, the North's key military assets targeting its immediate neighbor are known to have involved liquid-fuel Scud-B/C/ER short-range ballistic missiles, the 240-mm multiple rocket launcher system and 170-mm self-propelled artilleries.
"Compared to such previous ones, the newly developed weapons show complicated flight patterns while flying faster at a lower maximum altitude. They also use solid fuels and are fired from a mobile launcher, all of which aim to make it difficult to detect and intercept," Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University, said.
Pointing out that solid-fuel weapons have advantages in surprise launches and their management compared to liquid-fuel ones, North Korea is "forecast to further accelerate its development of diverse types of such weapons," he said, adding it would carry out additional launches for its deployment for full operation.
Those moves are seen as part of efforts to further boost its military capabilities while having talks on its nuclear weapons program with the U.S.
"Recent test-firings show that North Korea has been into modernizing its decades-old conventional weapons system, which would be an inevitable option for the North to proceed in parallel with denuclearization talks as well as an effective way to intensify its menace against South Korea," professor Kim noted.
North Korea began denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. last year, but their talks have been stalled since the breakdown of the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim in February. Kim said he wants to resume dialogue when the ongoing exercise by South Korea and the U.S. is over, according to Trump.
While North Korea has evolved its missiles capabilities in a way to neutralize South Korea's missile defense systems, the military here said that it, along with U.S. authorities, is capable of fully responding to those weapons and vowed to continue to beef up related abilities.
"For several days ahead, the South Korean and the U.S. intelligence authorities had detected and closely followed moves of the mobile launcher employed in Saturday's firing, and we can instantly take appropriate measures to such launches in contingencies," a military officer said.
The military is also eyeing deploying the Korean Tactical Surface to Surface Missile (KTSSM) in around 2021, which is comparable to the North's new tactical weapon. According to the state-run Agency for Defense Development, the KTSSM is designed to destroy long-range artillery pieces hidden in underground tunnels. (Yonhap)