One of the world's foremost analysts of North Korea's ballistic missile
programs says reports of missile engine testing at a newly revealed
facility appear credible. As VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin
reports, North Korea is apparently able to test its missiles under more
realistic conditions than ever.
South Korean media have been reporting this week, indications North Korea may have tested engines for some of its largest and longest-range missiles earlier this year.
Joseph Bermudez is a senior analyst with the Jane's group of defense and intelligence publications. He says the test would be consistent with North Korea's decades-old missile development program.
"North Korea has routinely conducted ballistic missile engine, space launch vehicle engine, testing for the past 10-15 years. It would not be unusual that they would do that now," he said.
The tests are suspected to have taken place at a facility Bermudez took the lead in making public this week. A report published by Jane's Defence Weekly features satellite photographs of a 10-story missile tower and launch pad, located in a Southwestern region of North Korea. Bermudez says North Korea probably began building it about eight years ago.
"The North Korean missile and space launch facility near Pongdong-ni is the most advanced North Korean launch facility to date," he said.
Bermudez says North Korea has usually tested missile engines by separating them from the body of the missile that would carry it. He says the new facility may make future tests more realistic.
"This facility appears that it could actually test the engine while it's in the airframe. What this does, it gives you an additional capability to test how your subsystems will react to the vibrations and possibly heat of the engine," explained Bermudez.
North Korea has devoted abundant resources and attention to missile development since the 1970s. It is believed to have about 800 missiles, most of them short-range weapons capable of reaching Japan and South Korea. In 2006, Pyongyang tested a long-range missile theoretically capable of reaching the United States, but it failed less than a minute after launch.
That long-range test took place just a few months before North Korea conducted a test explosion of its first nuclear weapon. Bermudez says the nuclear and missile programs are designed to complement each other.
"North Korea wants nuclear weapons, and it wants to mount those... on its ballistic missiles," he said.
Some security experts believe North Korea may be able to reach the United States with a ballistic missile by about 2012, under the most favorable set of conditions. Mounting a nuclear weapon on a long-range missile and delivering it accurately is a far more complex task. Whether Pyongyang might achieve that remains a matter of speculation.