US official: North Korea fires a possible ballistic missile

Posted at 10:27 PM, Apr 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-04 22:27:44-04

North Korea fired a projectile into the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, on Wednesday morning, US and South Korean officials said.

The United States believes the projectile was likely a ballistic missile, according to a US official. It is one of several the country has test-fired in recent months.

North Korea’s missile test comes just a day before Chinese President Xi Jinping visits US President Donald Trump for a summit in Florida.

The United States has been pressuring China to put pressure on North Korea to stop its nuclear program and missile testing, but Trump said on Sunday the United States would be prepared to act alone to stop North Korea.

The projectile used in Wednesday’s test was launched at 6:42 a.m. Seoul time, from a site in the vicinity of Sinpo, South Hamgyong province, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said. It flew a distance of around 60 kilometers (37 miles), South Korean officials said.

The North Koreans use Sinpo shipyard for their submarine activity, and US satellites have observed increased activity there in recent days, a second US official said.

US Pacific Command said it detected and tracked a North Korean missile launch at 11:42 a.m. Hawaii time April 4, according to a statement. Pacific Command’s initial assessment is that the missile was a KN-15 medium range ballistic missile.

“The North American Aerospace Defense Command determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America,” said Cmdr. Dave Benham, spokesman for US Pacific Command.

The Japanese government estimated the projectile did not land within its exclusive economic zone, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in a briefing Wednesday morning.

The United States has grown increasingly wary of the pace of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as the regime has test-fired several ballistic missiles in the first two months of this year.

US officials and analysts have said the fact that the frequency and variety of tests is increasing shows North Korea is making progress in its missile programs.

“There’s two ways to look at it — one, they’re quicker at doing the (launch) setup (and) they’re quicker at making the missiles and transporting them,” said Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, after North Korea tested missiles in early March.

“Keep in mind if they’re doing a test shot you want to keep some (missiles) in reserve in case you go to war, so you’re shooting a missile that is operationally spare. That means their missile stockpiles are larger than they were before,” Schuster said.

US officials said the latest missile launch used a solid-fueled rocket from a mobile launcher.

Solid fuel is like an explosive jelly, less corrosive than liquid fuel, and it can be more easily stored in the rocket’s fuel tank than the liquid alternative, which requires specially lined tanks.

As with other rocket forces, North Korea’s liquid fuel-powered ballistic missiles up until now required a garrison, fuel storage tanks and support vehicles to launch, which can be identified with imagery, experts say.

But solid fuel-powered missiles need much less infrastructure, making them difficult for those monitoring North Korea’s military movements to spot, as there are fewer indicators, such as movement of trucks, for South Korean or US satellites and other surveillance to pick up on.

That means they are also more survivable in the event of a US first strike.

A senior White House official on Tuesday said: “The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table,” pointing to the failure of successive administrations’ efforts to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear program.

North Korea has successfully detonated nuclear weapons in the past, but experts said the country still hasn’t developed the technology to equip a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead.