North Korea conducted combustion testing for the engine of a mobile long-range missile presumed only a day before its third nuclear test last week, it has emerged.
The missile is presumed to be the KN-08, an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 to 6,000 km. It was unveiled in a military parade on nation founder Kim Il-sung's 100th birthday on April 15 last year, but was then largely believed to have been a fake. The engine test suggests it was a little more than that.
A South Korean government official said the North carried out combustion testing at a missile launch site in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province on Feb. 11.
Seoul presumes that the North is still conducting testing to improve the engine, which suggests it'll be difficult for the regime to test-launch a real missile soon.
Since late 2011, the North has conducted several engine combustion tests for long-range rockets or new missiles but most failed until early last year. The North launched space rockets in April and December as an apparent cover to test ICBM technology, claiming their aim was to put peaceful satellites into orbit.
A South Korean military source speculated, "It seems that the North intentionally conducted the test to coincide with the time when a U.S. reconnaissance satellite was monitoring the Tongchang-ri test site, apparently with the aim of improving negotiation leverage.
The KN-08 is estimated to be 18 m long and 2 m in diameter, about 6 m longer in length and 50 cm thicker than the Musudan missile, whose range is 3,000 to 4,000 km and already deployed warfare-ready. The KN-08's range is likely to cover Alaska and Hawaii.
In the parade last year, it was carried on a mobile launch platform made in China, whereas previous long-range rockets are launched from large fixed launch pads. Mobile missiles are threatening because they are harder to pinpoint and destroy.
Some experts wonder whether the North will conduct a full-scale launch of the KN-08 if additional sanctions are imposed by the UN Security Council over the latest nuclear test.
In a statement on Feb. 12, the North's Foreign Ministry said, "If the U.S. makes this situation complex in hostility, we will come up with second and third reactions."