N. Korea claims new leap in ballistic rockets

Seoul orders military to be ready to respond to provocation as Pyongyang ups rocket power

SEOUL • North Korea successfully tested a solid-fuel engine that boosted the power of its ballistic rockets, state media reported yesterday, as South Korea's President ordered the military to be ready to respond to the North's "reckless provocation".

Pyongyang's claim indicates it is continuing to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at a rapid pace in defiance of United Nations sanctions and amid assessment by the South's officials that it could conduct a new nuclear test at any time.

The tension heightened as China, Pyongyang's main ally, said yesterday that President Xi Jinping will push his US counterpart Barack Obama next week to resume talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.

"We think this issue should be resolved via dialogue and consultation," Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Li Baodong said. "Presidents Xi and Obama will have an opportunity to have a full exchange of views."

He said Mr Xi and Mr Obama will have their first meeting this year on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington next week.

North Korea has in recent weeks stepped up bellicose rhetoric, threatening pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Washington and Seoul, as well as making claims of advancement in its weapons technology.

The Rodong Sinmum, the North's ruling party newspaper, carried photos of leader Kim Jong Un on site as a rocket engine laid horizontally on the ground emitted a fiery blast. A two-page report detailed the testing of the engine's structure and thrust. "He noted with great pleasure that the successful test... helped boost the power of ballistic rockets capable of mercilessly striking hostile forces," KCNA news agency said.

The North said last week it had conducted a successful simulated test of atmospheric re-entry of a ballistic missile, and would soon test ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

On Wednesday, the North repeated the threat to attack the South's presidential office, saying its large-calibre multiple rocket launch systems are on alert to strike the Blue House and its special operations unit is ready to go into action.

South Korean President Park Geun Hye ordered a heightened state of alert and put the military on standby to "respond actively to reckless provocations by the North," according to her office.

The current tension follows the UN Security Council's recent imposition of tough new sanctions against the North over its nuclear and missile programmes, and as South Korea and the US conduct annual joint military drills. The North calls the exercises "nuclear war moves" and has threatened to respond with an all-out offensive, as well as a series of rocket launches in recent days.

Apart from the sanctions, the UN yesterday voted to create an expert group to explore legal pathways to hold North Korea's leadership accountable for widespread and horrific rights abuses in the country.

The new group should "focus on issues of accountability for human rights violations in the country, in particular where such violations amount to crimes against humanity", said the UN Human Rights Council.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2016, with the headline 'N. Korea claims new leap in ballistic rockets'. Print Edition | Subscribe