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(3rd LD) Seoul says N. Korea continuing missile activities

All Headlines 15:07 March 28, 2017

(ATTN: UPDATES with N. Korea's possible nuke test, expert's view in last 7 paras; ADDS satellite photo, byline)
By Lee Chi-dong

SEOUL, March 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea confirmed on Tuesday that North Korea is working to improve its ballistic missile technology amid a news report that it conducted another test of a rocket engine last week.

"Our military recognized that North Korea is continuing its activities to sophisticate its missile capability," a Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) spokesman told reporters. "We are keeping close tabs on such activities in cooperation with the United States."

CNN reported earlier that the North carried out a ground test of a ballistic missile engine last Friday. It cited information from two unnamed U.S. military officials.

One official was quoted as saying that the engine technology could "possibly be used in an eventual intercontinental ballistic missile."

It marks the second-known missile engine combustion in less than a week.

The JCS official added the North's activity reported by CNN is in line with the North's continued efforts to upgrade its missile capability.

He said a further analysis is needed to figure out details, including whether the reclusive nation used the same device and technology for the successive tests.

A photo of North Korea's new rocket engine test (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution.) (KCNA-Yonhap)

The North's state media announced on March 19 that it succeeded in testing a high-thrust rocket engine at a missile site near the border with China, indicating it was conducted a day earlier. Leader Kim Jong-un made an on-site inspection of the experiment.

It was viewed as a prelude to the launch of a long-range rocket in a bid to master ICBM technology. Pyongyang usually claims it's part of a space program.

South Korea's military authorities said the North's weekend announcement shows "meaningful" progress in its missile development program.

North Korea watchers are also concerned that the unpredictable regime may soon detonate a nuclear bomb for what would be its sixth nuclear test, as it is preparing to mark some politically important events, including the 105th birth anniversary of the North's late founding leader Kim Il-sung on April 15.

Recent commercial satellite imagery suggested some vehicle moves at the North's Punggye-ri nuclear site, according to the 38 North website based in Washington, D.C.

The North has conducted five underground nuclear tests there: in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and twice last year.

The presence of possibly four or five vehicles or trailers at the entrance of a key facility of the site was detected, with a pile of construction material, probably sand and aggregate, seen undisturbed in a nearby storage lot, added the website specializing in reports on North Korea.

Possible vehicles or equipment are spotted at North Korea's nuclear test site in Punggye-ri in this satellite imagery released by the 38 North website. (Yonhap)

Experts said the North's nuclear and long-range rocket tests tend to be a sequence of incidents.

"Past precedent shows us that nuclear tests and long-range missile tests are often conducted in close proximity to each other," Bruce Bechtol, a professor of political science at Angelo State University and the author of several books on North Korea, said in an emailed comment.

Thus, he added, if North Korea conducts a nuclear test in the coming days or weeks, we can expect a long-range missile test soon thereafter.


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