SEOUL-- North Korea's latest launch of what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) seems intended to sharpen its weapons technology for the goal of completing its development of a long-range nuclear missile, and more launches are expected to follow in coming months, experts said Wednesday.
The North's test of what was apparently a Hwasong-14 ICBM also indicates that Pyongyang will stick to its schedule for developing ICBMs in order to take the upper hand in potential future talks with the United States, they said.
Earlier in the day, the North fired the missile from an area north of Pyongyang, breaking a 75-day lull in its provocations. The missile, fired at a lofted angle, flew 960 kilometers to an altitude of around 4,500 km, Seoul's military said.
If confirmed, it would mark the third ICBM fired by the North following tests of two such missiles in July.
Experts said that the latest test is alarming, as it probably brought North Korea a step closer to the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of reaching the continental U.S.
"North Korea seemed to refrain from provocations to buy time to improve its technology, not to manage the security situation," said Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS). "It may have tested the missile with a view to completing its nuclear force by the end of the year."
There was some cautious optimism that a weekslong hiatus of the North's provocations may set the tone for possible talks between North Korea and the U.S., but this was proved wrong by the latest test.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in January that his country had entered the final stage of preparing to launch an ICBM.
Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said Tuesday that North Korea may announce the completion of its nuclear weapons program next year when the regime marks the 70th anniversary of its establishment.
Analysts said that the latest test was the longest flight of a North Korean missile but that the country seems to be short of mastering re-entry technology, a key element in developing an ICBM.
If fired at a standard trajectory, the missile may have flown as far as 13,000 kilometers, which puts much of the U.S. mainland within range.
But outside experts said that the North has yet to fully develop the re-entry technology that allows a warhead to withstand the extreme heat and pressure of passing through the Earth's atmosphere.
The provocation came shortly after the U.S. re-listed North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. President Donald Trump has employed "maximum pressure" on North Korea over its nuclear and missile tests.
Trump said that all options, including military ones, are on the table but that the U.S. prefers diplomacy to resolve the North Korean issue.
"North Korea seemed to be testing its re-entry technology with the latest missile launch," said Chung Sung-yoon, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. "Pyongyang also showed its political resolve to counter Washington, following Trump's latest visit to Asia and the designation of the North as a terror sponsor."
South Korea's military said that the missile test appeared intended to protest against tougher U.N. sanctions and to boost internal solidarity following purges of key officials and a dramatic defection by a North Korean soldier across the tense border.
"North Korea appeared to fire a missile with an intercontinental range to pressure the U.S. for possible dialogue," the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Experts said that Pyongyang will probably launch more missiles in order to perfect its technology, which will likely provoke tougher sanctions from Washington.
The U.S. could accelerate its sanctions on Chinese or other entities doing business with North Korea, in what is known as a "secondary boycott," they said.
"The latest launch may have been aimed at checking the technology for a future missile test over the Pacific Ocean," said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University. "There is a high possibility that it could conduct more missile testing this year."
The North's leader vowed in September to take the "highest-level" action in response to Trump's threat to "totally destroy" the North over its nuclear and missile programs.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said later in New York that Pyongyang may consider its most powerful test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
"North Korea's declaration of the completion of its nukes seems imminent. The North's leader may announce it in his New Year's message and could take a peace offensive for talks," said Cho, an analyst at the INSS.
Source: Yonhap News Agency