SEOUL • North Korea has tested a powerful new rocket engine, the state news agency said yesterday, with leader Kim Jong Un hailing the successful test as a "new birth" for the nation's rocket industry.
The test was apparently timed to coincide with the visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Beijing over the weekend, where he warned that regional tensions had reached a "dangerous level".
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the test took place at the same north-west facility where the country had been launching rockets to put satellites into orbit, which Western officials have said were efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
While North Korea has never flight-tested an ICBM, it has recently demonstrated significant progress in its missile programmes with new engines that could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead as far away as the United States.
The KCNA said Mr Kim had overseen the operation, and "emphasised that the whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries", hinting that the North could use the new engine to launch a rocket to put a satellite into orbit.
Three options for US military action
A declaration by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Washington would consider pre-emptive military action against North Korea raises a question that has dogged US military planners for 20 years: How could this be made to work? The New York Times looks at three options as well as their challenges and risks.
1 HALT A MISSILE LAUNCH
How it would work: Such an attack would be more "self-defence" than pre-emption, Mr Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last September at the Council on Foreign Relations. If North Korea appears poised to launch a nuclear-armed missile, US strikes could "take out launch capabilities on the launchpad or take them out once they are launched", he said. The challenge: It may not be so easy as hitting launchpads out in the open. In wartime, North Korea would probably use mobile launchers, hidden around the country in locations such as tunnels. Striking every launcher before it could be used would be difficult. The risk: This would almost certainly be too late to prevent all nuclear missiles from getting off the ground and, given that missile defence is no guarantee, through to their targets.
2 DEVASTATE THE ARSENAL
How it would work: Striking nuclear and missile facilities would delay the programmes and pressure Pyongyang to surrender them. Cyber attacks, launched alongside or instead of physical attacks, could sabotage the programmes and disrupt the military command. The challenge: As North Korea's programme is indigenous rather than imported, the country has the know-how to replace destroyed facilities, making setbacks temporary. It would be difficult to strike existing missiles hidden around the country, most likely leaving much of the threat in place. The risk: Even a limited attack would probably prompt retaliation. An attack broad enough to seriously degrade the programme could provoke North Korean fears of an invasion or an assassination attempt, potentially leading to all-out war.
3 WAR LAUNCHED ON U.S. TERMS
How it would work: The United States would initiate a war to destroy the North Korean government outright, much as in Iraq in 2003. The challenge: North Korea's war plans are thought to call for extensive nuclear strikes to stop any invasion. The risk: North Korea would almost certainly succeed in launching some nuclear and chemical weapons, potentially killing millions.
Any plan faces a common set of problems that are both essential to overcome and have so far proved insurmountable.
Rocket engines are easily re-purposed for use in missiles. Observers say the nuclear-armed Pyongyang's space programme is a fig leaf for weapons tests.
Last Saturday, the US and China pledged to work together to address the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear programme.
Mr Tillerson had also visited US allies Japan and South Korea, where he said the US would no longer observe the failed approach of patient diplomacy with Pyongyang, warning that American military action against the North was "on the table".
The tougher US talk followed two North Korean nuclear tests last year and recent missile launches that Pyongyang described as practice for an attack on US bases in Japan.
Quoting Professor Kim Yong Hyun of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, Yonhap News Agency said yesterday that Mr Kim's participation in the engine test was the North's indirect way of saying it will not give ground to outside pressure.
Pyongyang's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, yesterday denounced the US for its hostile North Korean policy, slamming it as "brigandish" and "rogue" in a commentary.
The last ground test of a high-powered rocket engine was in September last year, which was also observed by Mr Kim. At that time, he hailed the test and called for more rocket launches to turn the country into a "possessor of geostationary satellites in a couple of years to come".
A geostationary satellite must be propelled to a height of 36,000km, and North Korea is showing off its progress in developing a long- range ICBM that can reach the US east coast, Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies said.
"The North is hinting strongly that it will soon launch a new satellite rocket" from its Sohae satellite launch site, he said. It may also carry out a secretive ICBM test using a mobile launcher, he added.
"The test is timed with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States", and the anniversary of the founding of the North's army, he noted.
Negotiations are under way for Mr Xi's first summit with US President Donald Trump next month in the US.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES