SEOUL • The rocket that North Korea launched this week appeared to be more powerful than one fired in 2012, with an increased range of 12,000km that puts most of the United States within reach, a South Korean Defence Ministry official said yesterday.
The three-stage rocket was confirmed to have put an object into orbit but it had not yet been verified whether the satellite was functioning, he told journalists, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The rocket is similar to the Unha-3 launched in December 2012 but is believed to have a range of 12,000km.
The old model was estimated to have a range of 10,000km.
"We need more analysis to determine the capacity, including its exact range," said a Defence Ministry spokesman.
There had been speculation that North Korea might use a much larger rocket this time, after having completed work on a 67m gantry tower capable of handling a launch vehicle twice the size of the 30m Unha-3. The North, however, had not yet mastered key technology needed to turn the rocket into an intercontinental ballistic missile, the official said.
The rocket, said to be carrying an earth observation satellite, blasted off on Sunday at around 9am Pyongyang time (8.30am Singapore time) and, according to North Korean state TV, achieved orbit 10 minutes later.
The launch, widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test, sparked international condemnation and resulted in a UN Security Council agreement to impose new sanctions against the increasingly defiant state. There are fears that the long-range missile could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon.
The flight path of the latest rocket is also similar to that of the 2012 launch vehicle, whose first-stage debris was recovered by South Korea off its western coast. North Korea this time is believed to have had the first stage of Sunday's rocket blow up into 270-odd pieces to cover up its technical footprint, the official said. Pyongyang is already subject to numerous UN sanctions over previous rocket launches and three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The latest rocket launch may kick off a build-up of US missile defence systems in Asia, US officials and missile defence experts said, something that could further strain US-China ties and hurt relations between Beijing and Seoul.
The US and South Korea said they will begin formal talks about deploying the sophisticated Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, or Thaad, system to the Korean peninsula "at the earliest possible date".
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS