North Korea is nearing the final stage of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile and is likely to continue test-launches and nuclear experiments to perfect the technology, Seoul’s Defense Ministry said Monday.
In a briefing to a parliamentary defense committee, the ministry also said that the North’s launch Friday of the intermediate-range Hwasong-12 rocket appears to be intended at demonstrating its capability to strike the US territory of Guam. In August, the communist regime had threatened to attack the Pacific island, some 3,400 kilometers from Pyongyang, with four Hwasong-12 missiles.
Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un on Saturday declared the rocket’s combat power and reliability have been proved through tests and that the weapon is now ready for full deployment. He also claimed that the country is closer to achieving its nuclear ambitions.
“We have tentatively concluded that the latest missile fired was the Hwasong-12, an IRBM, and that the North has IRBM capacities. We see the communist regime is at its final stage of developing an ICBM,” Maj. Gen. Jang Kyung-soo, acting deputy minister for policy, told lawmakers.
The ministry later said that their evaluation comes from what the North has said about its development and that it is not based on their own intel assessment.
“(The North) will likely carry out more nuclear tests and missile launches to secure nuclear capabilities,” Jang added.
While there has not been unusual movement spotted, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site appears to be ready for another test at any time, he added. On Sept. 5, the North conducted its sixth and largest underground atomic detonation.
On Friday, North Korea fired an IRBM at a normal angle, which flew 3,700 kilometers and reached an altitude of about 770 kilometers over Japan. The distance appears to be farther than that between Pyongyang and Guam. The event marks the second provocation this month after the Sept. 3 nuclear test, which appears to be the sixth and the strongest.
So far, the North has fired 19 missile on 14 occasions this year, and has conducted 10 missiles launches since President Moon Jae-in took office in May.
During the parliamentary briefing, over which Defense Minister Song Young-moo presided, the ministry also revealed joint exercises plans with the United States and Japan.
South Korea’s Navy and the United States will hold a joint exercise next month involving “the US carrier strike group,” assets including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and another which the United States is planning to send to waters near the peninsula.
The name of the carrier was not revealed. Between late September and early October, the two allies will also conduct a combined missile alert drill joined by Japan.
In a warning to the recalcitrant North, the United States is expected to dispatch B-1B strategic bombers in Guam to Korea later this month.
Defense Minister Song said the ministry would line up the country’s strategic arms and introduce them on Army Day which falls on Oct. 1, in a bid to quell rising concerns among the public amid the heightened tension with the North.
Regarding a recent announcement by the Unification Ministry over its plan to send $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea via UN agencies, the defense chief said it is likely to be delayed.
“I heard that the government would push back the date when it will deliver the humanitarian aid package,” Defense Minister Song said.
Asked about the appropriateness of giving humanitarian support to the North, he declined to answer, saying the question should go to the Unification Minister.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry on Monday reiterated its stance that its humanitarian support project targeting infants and pregnant women should be dealt with separately from political circumstances.