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South Korea isn't buying North Korea's latest missile claims

South Korea poured cold water on North Korea’s claims that it successfully tested a missile capable of hitting parts of the U.S. Tuesday — with Seoul saying it does not believe Pyongyang has secured re-entry capabilities for its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program.

Despite this, independent expert analysis of the launch suggests that North Korea will be able to “reliably deliver a single nuclear warhead to targets along the U.S. West Coast” with a year or two of further testing.


“Considering how North Korea does not have any testing facilities [for re-entry technology], the agency believes [North Korea] has not yet secured that technology,” South Korean politician Yi Wan-young, a member of the parliament’s intelligence committee, said Tuesday.

Yi said the South Korean spy agency believes the missile launched last week was a modified version of the KN-17 intermediate-range missile tested in May. He added that the agency had not detected any unusual activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

On July 4, Pyongyang claimed to have successfully verified the atmospheric re-entry of the warhead loaded on the test-launched missile, known as the Hwasong 14. The missile travelled 930 kilometers on a lofted trajectory for 37 minutes, before landing in the sea between North Korea and Japan.

Though South Korea is being publicly dismissive of the missile launch, others are more cautious. Writing for 38 North, a site that monitors the hermit kingdom, one expert warned that Pyongyang may soon have the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead “possibly with enough accuracy to destroy soft military targets like naval bases.” Aerospace engineer John Schilling added that North Korea will likely have “a modest suite of decoys and penetration aids” allowing the missiles to avoid U.S. anti-missile defenses within five years.

The missile launched last week was a combination of technology cobbled together from other rockets, and while initial analysis suggested it could only reach Alaska, Schilling says that with a 500kg payload, it could travel almost 10,000 kilometers, putting the U.S. naval base in San Diego within range.

In the days since the missile launch, supreme leader Kim Jong Un has taken every opportunity to celebrate. Even as Yi questioned North Korea’s missile credentials Tuesday, Kim was attending a pop music concert in Pyongyang with his wife, Ri Sol-joo, who had not been seen in public for four months. The concert was held to honor the scientists who developed the Hwasong-14 missile.

“Even America’s gang leaders are acknowledging our success and emitting screams of desperation,” Hwang Pyong-so, one of the scientists involved, told the large, enthusiastic crowd. “The whole world is shocked by our achievement. We’ll set a blistering pace and continue until U.S. forces wave their white flags at us, until we achieve final victory of our revolution.”