State media on Friday said Kim “guided the important test” of a “high-thrust solid-fuel motor,” noting its was the first of its kind for the country. “This important test has provided a sure sci-tech guarantee for the development of another new-type strategic weapon system,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
It also released photos of Kim, with cigarette in hand, smiling in front of a massive cloud of smoke from the test site at its Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, along with other shots showing flames shooting out from the place where it said the engine test took place.
Solid-fuel missiles are quick to deploy and can be easier to hide, giving the US and its allies less time to see signs of a launch and prepare interceptors. Kim has been modernizing his missile arsenal over the past several years, and has rolled out new, nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missiles that can hit US military bases in all of South Korea and parts of Japan.
“This is the largest solid fuel motor test ever conducted by North Korea,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
“Solid fuel missiles require less preparation prior to launching as they are built with the fuel ‘baked’ into the missile body. Shorter launch times ultimately increase the survivability of the system,” he said.
The engine could be used for its Pukguksong series of submarine-launched ballistic missiles — a two-stage, nuclear-capable rocket that has a range to hit all of Japan. It could also be used for longer-range missiles, including possible intercontinental ballistic ones that could deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland.
North Korea’s ICBMs use liquid-fuel engines, which take longer to prepare and give the US and its allies a greater chance to shoot them down on the launch pad than would be the case with a potential solid-fuel version.
This year, Kim’s regime has fired off more than 65 ballistic missiles, the most during his decade in power and in defiance of United Nations resolutions that bar the launches. He has stepped up the provocations in recent weeks in a display of anger at joint military drills in the region conducted by the US and its allies South Korea and Japan.