By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Nov. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's latest test of a new "super-large" multiple rocket launcher appears to mark the completion of development of yet another short-range tactical weapon that could further complicate South Korea's anti-artillery and missile defense capabilities, experts said Friday.
On Thursday, North Korea fired what it dubbed "super-large multiple rocket launchers" toward the East Sea from its western city of Sunchon in the third test of the new system in about two months. The North claimed the testing was successful.
The super-large launcher, according to experts, is the fourth short-range weapon that the communist nation has showed off during a series of test firings this year, and it is expected to serve as one of its key military assets aiming at its immediate neighbor, South Korea.
"This week's test appears to aim at verifying the so-called running fire capabilities of the new system, and North Korea, in fact, greatly shortened the firing interval this time," Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense Security Forum in Seoul, said.
During the weapon's first known test on Aug. 24, two projectiles were fired from its eastern town of Sondok in a 17-minute interval. Both flew around 350 to 400 km at a maximum altitude of 97 km and a top speed of around Mach 6.5, according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
In the second test on Sept. 10, the North took the system to its western city of Kaechon and fired two projectiles in a 19-minute interval. They traveled around 330 km at a maximum altitude of around 50 to 60 km, but the test was largely deemed unsuccessful, as one of them is presumed to have crashed onto land.
Then on Thursday, North Korea fired another two projectiles from its western city of Sunchon into the East Sea but in a far shorter interval of three minutes. Both flew around 370 km across the peninsula, reaching a maximum altitude of around 90 km, and they splashed into the East Sea, according to the JCS.
"Following the successful test that took place from its western region, North Korea will seek to put it into operation in the near future," Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University's Far East Institute, said.
In the course of missile development, North Korea usually carries out an initial round of tests on the east coast and then launches projectiles from western towns to fly them across its territory so as to check their stability and operational capabilities.
Photos released by North Korea show that the super-large launcher bears outward similarities to its "new large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system" presumed to be a 400-millimeter one, which was launched on July 31 and Aug. 2.
But their flight features indicate that this "super-large" launcher could be "an upgraded version of either its existing artillery system or the large-caliber launcher," professor Kim said.
"It is seen as a 600-mm diameter one, which, if confirmed, would have no precedent in the world and has little difference from missiles," he noted. Following the August test, the North's official Korean Central News Agency also claimed that it developed "the world's strongest super-large rocket launcher of our style."
But others point out that further tests may be required to put it into operation.
"For its operational deployment, North Korea may need to fire four projectiles at one time, just as the system is designed to," a military source said. The launcher system uses transporter erector launchers (TEL) with four tubes.
Currently, North Korea operates several types of such multiple rocket launchers, such as 122-mm, 240-mm and 300-mm ones. Of them, the 240-mm one is believed to be capable of firing 40 rounds of projectiles in a minute.
"Such multiple launchers would be very effective for North Korea as it is capable of making multiple artillery launches in succession in a short period of time, making it hard to detect and intercept it," Kwon Yong-soo, a missile expert and former professor at Korea National Defense University, said.
"North Korea may replace its scud-type short-range ballistic missiles with multiple launchers to secure a means of attack that is cheaper but easier to manage and as powerful as missiles," Kwon added.
During the 12 rounds of major weapons tests so far this year, which began in May after an 18-month hiatus, North Korea boasted of a total of five new types of weapons, including the two types of multiple rocket launcher systems.
The three others are its version of Russia's Iskander ballistic missile, its version of the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) and the newly developed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Pukguksong-3.
Excluding the SLBM, which was launched on Oct. 2, all were short-range weapons that would put most parts of the Korean peninsula within its range.
The North's version of Russia's Iskander, codenamed KN-23, has a range of around 500 kilometers, and Seoul's military authorities confirmed that the ballistic missile shows a complicated trajectory, different from a general parabolic one. As the missiles did the so-called pull-up maneuver in the final phase of the test, concerns have risen that the missile may not be fully covered by South Korean radar systems.
This year, North Korea also showed off another "new missile" that looks similar to the U.S.' Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile system.
As it is capable of spewing shrapnel over a large area, the missile is feared to be capable of posing an indiscriminate hazard to civilians, according to experts.
"All of the four ground-based weapons are solid-fuel ones, which have advantages in surprise launches and their management compared to liquid-fuel ones," Chang Young-keun, a missile expert at Korea Aerospace University, said.
"North Korea is forecast to continue to focus on the development of these kinds of conventional weapons while proceeding in parallel with denuclearization talks," he added.
In response to evolving threats posed by North Korea's short-range weapons, South Korea seeks to beef up its corresponding assets while strengthening its missile defense system.
Of major projects, the military seeks to upgrade its Patriot-2 short-range interceptor missiles to PAC-3 interceptors and to secure more detection and interception assets, according to the defense ministry.
Over the next five years, the ministry seeks to spend 290.5 trillion won (US$249.12 billion) -- 103.8 trillion won on improving defense capabilities and the remaining 186.7 trillion won on force management -- "to enhance defense capabilities to make leading responses to security threats from all directions possible."
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