SEOUL — North Korea’s latest test of a rocket engine showed that the country was making “meaningful progress” in trying to build more powerful rockets and missiles, South Korean officials said yesterday.
North Korea said on Sunday that it had conducted a ground jet test of a newly developed high-thrust missile engine, which its leader, Mr Kim Jong-un, called “a great event of historic significance”.
Using the characteristic bombast of such announcements, he said that the test heralded “a new birth” of the country’s rocket industry and that “the whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries”.
Seoul acknowledged yesterday that the test represented a breakthrough. Mr Lee Jin-woo, a spokesman at the Defence Ministry, said it showed that the North was developing a more sophisticated rocket engine.
The model that the North tested included a cluster consisting of a main engine and four vernier thrusters — smaller engines used to adjust the craft’s velocity and stability.
“Through this test, it is found that engine function has made meaningful progress,” Mr Lee said during a news briefing, without divulging further details.
He declined to say whether the engine was for a rocket used to place a satellite into orbit or for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which the North has been threatening to test-flight any time. Mr Lee said more analysis was needed to answer that question.
The North Korean leader has called for his country to develop and launch “a variety of more working satellites” using “carrier rockets of bigger capacity”.
A South Korean analyst said the latest engine test was an ominous development.
“This was a comprehensive test for the first-stage rocket for an ICBM, and that is why it was dangerous,” said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies.
“It appears that North Korea has worked out much of its development of the first-stage rocket booster.”
The United Nations Security Council has banned the country from satellite launchings, considering its satellite program a cover for developing an ICBM.
The test of the rocket engine took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in Tongchang-ri, in northwestern North Korea, where the country fired a carrier rocket last February to place a satellite into orbit.
After that launch, South Korean defence officials said that the Unha rocket used in the launch, if successfully reconfigured as a missile, could fly more than 12,000km with a warhead of 500 to 600kg — far enough to reach most of the US.
Although the North has never test-flown an ICBM, it has recently demonstrated significant progress in its missile programs.
Since Mr Kim took power in 2011, North Korea has launched 46 ballistic missiles, including 24 last year.
He has said his country was in the “final stage” of preparing for its first ICBM test.
America’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last Friday that two decades of international efforts to end the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs had failed. He warned that all options should be on the table to stop them, including possible pre-emptive military action.
American President Donald Trump told reporters he held meetings on North Korea at the weekend at his Florida resort.
While he did not refer specifically to the latest rocket-engine test, he said Mr Kim was “acting very, very badly”. AGENCIES