(ATTN: RECASTS lead; ADDS more comments, background info in paras 8-11, 18-25)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is believed to have tested a super-large multiple rocket launcher in this week's projectile launches after reducing firing intervals for operational deployment, experts and military sources said Tuesday.
On Monday, the communist country fired two projectiles in quick succession from its eastern coastal city of Wonsan into the East Sea. They flew around 240 kilometers, reaching a maximum altitude of around 35 km, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
It was the first such test by the North since Nov. 28, when it launched two missiles from what is presumed to be a super-large multiple rocket launcher.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Monday that leader Kim Jong-un attended a long-range artillery strike drill but did not provide specifics, such as the specific type of the weapon involved.
But photos released show the projectiles were the same as what it fired on Nov. 28, according to experts.
If confirmed, it is the fifth test of the system, as the North also previously included this type of weapon in its tests on Aug. 24, Sept. 10 and Oct. 31.
Noting that the artillery pieces demonstrated "accurate marksmanship," KCNA reported that leader Kim "expressed great satisfaction" that the country's troops are "prepared to make rapid reaction to any circumstances and perfectly carry out their firepower combat duties."
The JCS said the projectiles fired on Tuesday were believed to be "short-range ballistic missiles," and military sources here said rocket launcher projectiles could be categorized as ballistic missiles.
"The multiple launcher, equipped with a guided system, is easier to manage and cheaper but (the rockets are) still as powerful as missiles. We see little difference between the two," a source said.
North Korea is seemingly reluctant to call the weapon a "ballistic missile" as U.N. Security Council resolutions ban the communist country from all ballistic missile activity.
The super-large launcher is believed to be a 600-millimeter caliber one and uses a transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle. The North is believed to have started a super-large multiple launcher development project in 2017.
Experts noted that the firing intervals have been reduced through the launches.
The time gap between two launches was 20 seconds in the latest test, compared to 17 minutes in the initial test, 19 minutes in the second test, three minutes in the third test and 30 seconds in the fourth one, according to the JCS.
"The latest test is to verify its continuous-fire system of the launcher," Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense Security Forum in Seoul, said.
"The shorter interval, now 20 seconds, means that North Korea secures enhanced capabilities in launching surprise attacks, and that is what Kim Jong-un has called for," he added.
The super-large multiple rocket launcher is believed to have a maximum range of around 400 km, which puts most parts of South Korea in its reach.
During the October launches, the North flew the missiles from its western region, which was also deemed successful.
Also noteworthy is that the projectiles from the launcher system flew at the low altitude of about 35 km, making them harder to detect and intercept, experts said.
"Now that it has successfully proven the successive firing system twice, North Korea could be seen as almost ready for its operational deployment," professor Kim Dong-yup of Kyungnam University's Far East Institute forecast.
Some speculate that the system has already been put into operation, as the latest test took place as part of its military drills, and the KCNA, in contrast to its earlier reports on launches, did not call it a "test-firing."
"Just because soldiers fired it during outdoor drills does not necessarily mean that a weapon has actually been deployed. We are also analyzing that, too," another military source said.
One of the photos released by the North shows a target in the sea covered with thick artillery smoke, which may indicate that the missiles were equipped with cluster munitions. During last year's tests, the projectiles were not aimed at specific targets but were meant to fly far.
"North Korea would have tried to test and verify (the missiles') precision, but we cannot say for sure as of now if they actually hit the target or not," the source said.
The latest test is the first this year and follows Pyongyang's warning about a "new strategic weapon" made in a New Year's message, apparently in protest over stalled denuclearization negotiations with the U.S. Experts have said it could have been referring to an advanced version of its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or an SLBM.
"I believe that the North's choice of this familiar short-range missile is aimed primarily at domestic audiences while demonstrating its willingness to continue building military capabilities as part of efforts to beef up what it calls self-defense power," a JCS officer said.
(News Focus) Kim's surprise apology indicates his wish to prevent inter-Korean ties from worsening further
Inter-Korean ties thrown into abyss following N. Korea's killing of S. Korean citizen
Push to barter S. Korean sugar for N.K. liquor raises both hopes, concerns
Remarks by N.K. leader's sister dim prospects of Trump-Kim meeting before Nov. U.S. election
N.K. seeks to distract from domestic hardships with liaison office demolition: experts