By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Aug. 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea showed off yet another newly developed missile last week, indicating that the regime has been focusing on the modernization of its conventional weapons system as nuclear negotiations with the United States have remained stalled, experts said Monday.
On Saturday, North Korea fired two short-range projectiles from its eastern coastal city of Hamhung in South Hamgyong Province into the East Sea, the fifth such launch since July 25 and seventh firing so far this year.
While South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) simply said that they were presumed to be short-range ballistic missiles, photos released by the North the following day showed that they seem to be another novel type of surface-to-surface missile that has never been released.
"The missile fired on Aug. 10 appears to be a new type of short-range tactical ground-based ballistic missile, different from its version of Iskander and the large-caliber multiple launch rocket system North Korea recently showed off," Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University's Far East Institute, said.
Iskander, originated from Russia, is a solid-fuel surface-to-surface missile. North Korea appears to have successfully developed its version, with a range of around 500 kilometers, after rounds of tests this year, having first revealed it during a military parade in February 2018.
Reporting the firing of "a new missile" under the guidance of its leader Kim Jong-un, the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also said Sunday that the weapon "has advantageous tactical character different to the existing weapon systems" and was "developed to suit the terrain condition of our country."
Images released by North Korean state media showed that the missiles, fired from a caterpillar-type transporter erector launcher (TEL), bear some outward similarities to the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile system manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
"Like the ATACMS, the North's new missile could be capable of spewing shrapnel over a large area, which could pose an indiscriminate hazard to civilians," Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense Security Forum in Seoul, said.
The new missile also put the entire Korean peninsula within its range, he added.
According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the two projectiles launched on Saturday flew around 400 kilometers at a top speed of around Mach 6.1. The location of the latest launch, the city of Hamhung, is some 400 kilometers from South Korea's city of Daejeon, where major military facilities are located nearby, and around 450 km away from the South's Seongju base, where the U.S. advanced missile defense system of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery is deployed.
"But what the North launched on Saturday is different from the ATACMS given its flight pattern and speed, among others. We are analyzing the exact identity," a military source said.
The ATACMS is known to have a range of around 300 kilometers with a maximum range of around Mach 3.
The latest revelation would mark the third known fresh item added to the list of North Korea's short-range ground-based missiles this year.
During its major weapons test that began in May this year after a 17-month hiatus, the communist country launched its version of Iskander, codenamed KN-23, at least four times -- on May 4, May 9, July 25 and Aug. 6 -- by tuning their range and altitude, according to military officers.
The North also launched two similar projectiles on both July 31 and Aug. 2 off the east coast, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). But the North said the launches were of a "newly developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system."
"The three types of weapons all appear to have some similarities. They have a longer range while flying faster at a lower maximum altitude than its previous ones. They also use solid fuels and are fired from a mobile launcher, all of which aim to make it difficult to detect and intercept," professor Kim said.
"Such moves indicate that North Korea has been into the development of conventional weapons system at a low cost while having negotiations on its nuclear weapons program," he added.
North Korea began negotiations on its nuclear weapons program with the U.S. last year, but they have been stalled since the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in February. Kim said he wants to resume the dialogue when the ongoing exercise by South Korea and the U.S. is over, according to Trump.
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