North Korea's test launch of a KN-06 surface-to-air missile into the West Sea early this month appears to have been successful, South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said at a hearing by the National Assembly's Defense Committee on Monday.
"We believe North Korea was testing its latest weapon system and we have concluded that it was a success," Kim said, offering the first such confirmation of the test launch.
North Korea unveiled the missile at a military parade celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of its Workers Party on October 10 last year. South Korea officially verified it as a KN-06 in its 2010 Defense White Paper.
The KN-06 is a surface-to-air missile that shoots down enemy fighters. Unlike previous North Korean missiles, such as the KN-02 inter-continental ballistic missile that follows an arch-like trajectory, the KN-06 is stored in a launching tube and fired vertically toward a flying target. It is similar to the Russian S-300, which is used to shoot down other missiles, and seems to be based on technology that North Korea secretly obtained from China, Russia and other countries. Showing its evolution from the S-300, which had a range of between 75 km and 90 km, the KN-06 is apparently capable of hitting targets up to 150 km away. Each launcher truck can hold two to three missiles.
North Korea developed its latest weapon after it encountered difficulties in acquiring new fighter jets from China and other countries. In contrast, the South Korean military has been able to upgrade its stable of fighter jets by acquiring cutting-edge F-15Ks. Seoul's Air Force will possess 60 such fighter jets by next year, capable of launching precision strikes against North Korean nuclear weapons and missile bases.
Pyongyang may also have produced a lighter nuclear device, Kim told lawmakers at the hearing, in what amounts to a rare admission by a high-ranking defense official.
"It has been a long time [since the North's nuclear test], so we believe the North had enough time to make a smaller or lighter nuclear weapon," he said. "Considering cases involving other countries, there is a strong chance that the North has succeeded."
However Kim was unable to provide details or concrete evidence when prodded on the matter by ruling Grand National Party lawmaker Kim Dong-sung.
Meanwhile, Kim confirmed a report by AP last month claiming that North Korea was nearing the completion of a second long-range missile base in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province. Kim said his intelligence reports showed the new base to be larger and more complex than Pyongyang's existing missile base in Musudan-ri, North Hamgyong Province.
In a bid to allay fears of a surprise attack from the North, the defense minister stressed that the South Korean military is capable of delivering effective attacks in case of provocation from across the border. It can also detect signs that the North is mounting nuclear warheads onto its missiles, he said.