North Korea could have nuclear ICBM next year, South says

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un providing input on a nuclear weapons programme in Pyongyang, in a picture released on Sept 3, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL, South Korea (NYTIMES) - North Korea has been conducting missile engine and fuel tests in recent weeks, with the goal of achieving nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities as early as next year, a senior South Korean official said on Tuesday (Nov 28).

Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea's lead official on North Korea, also said his government was closely monitoring missile-related activities in North Korea for a possible resumption of tests.

North Korea has not conducted a missile test since Sept 15. The hiatus has raised cautious hopes in the region that the country might want to de-escalate after a series of missile and nuclear tests earlier this year and instead focus on bracing its economy for the pain expected to result from fresh sanctions.

But Cho said there could be other factors contributing to the lull in tests. He said North Korea had traditionally conducted fewer missile tests in winter. The country also needed time to clear key technical hurdles to achieving full-fledged intercontinental ballistic missile technologies, he said.

"Although the North has not conducted any missile test since Sept 15, it has continued to engage in missile-related activities, such as engine and fuel tests," Cho said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"We have seen some noteworthy activities recently, but we need more monitoring before being able to tell whether they would lead to an actual missile test or provocation."

On Tuesday, the South Korean military also said it was closely watching missile-related activities in the North.

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has focused on visiting factories and farms in recent weeks, instead of military-related events. But North Korea has made it clear that despite increasingly crippling sanctions, it remains determined to develop the ability to hit the United States, as well as US allies in the region, with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.

In its last missile test, on Sept 15, a North Korean intermediate-range Hwasong-12 ballistic missile flew 3,700km east, passing over northern Japan and falling into the Pacific Ocean, demonstrating a range that could reach US military bases in Guam, a key launching pad for US forces should war break out on the Korean Peninsula. The North's military has threatened to launch missiles in an "enveloping strike" around Guam.

The United States restored North Korea to its list of state sponsors of terrorism on Nov 20, signalling that US President Donald Trump had no interest in easing his policy of applying "maximum" pressure and sanctions until the North agreed to return to the negotiating table to discuss denuclearizing.

North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb on Sept 3, in its sixth and most powerful nuclear test yet. The country has also launched two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, in July, the last of which demonstrated the potential of reaching major cities in the continental United States.

But the North's missiles have never achieved a full ICBM range. Nor has the country demonstrated that its nuclear warheads could survive the intense heat and friction of re-entering the atmosphere after a long-range flight through space and hit their targets.

Some analysts have said the recent hiatus in missile tests indicated that North Korean engineers still faced challenges such as the re-entry stage. In recent weeks, however, North Korea has repeatedly claimed to be in the "final" stage of acquiring full ICBM capability.

"They still need to clear technical hurdles in long-range missile technologies, including the re-entry know-how," Cho said on Tuesday.

"Some experts have said it will take them two or three years, but we also need to note that the North has been developing its technologies faster than expected.

"I would not be surprised if the North declares it has completed its nuclear arms capabilities next year, which is a landmark year for the country, with its government set to turn 70," he added.

North Korea has often celebrated its key anniversaries with major weapons tests.

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