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North Korean missiles still lack re-entry capability, Seoul says

Kim Jong Un (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

North Korea hasn’t secured the key technologies needed to build a ballistic missile that can survive a return through the atmosphere, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

An official from South Korea’s top spy agency told lawmakers Thursday that Pyongyang’s missile program still faced the barrier, Yonhap reported Friday, citing a “parliamentary source.” Building a vehicle that can protect warheads from the heat and stress of a return flight — or re-entry capability — is critical for developing functional intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The National Intelligence Service told members of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that North Korea’s recent missile engine tests haven’t provided the necessary capability, Yonhap said. A two-month hiatus in missile launches could be due to economic sanctions and financial constraints after frequent rocket tests under leader Kim Jong Un, the news agency said.

In July, Kim declared he could strike the entire continental U.S. after test-firing the regime’s second ICBM within a month — a claim disputed by American officials. In a meeting last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Donald Trump again called on Beijing to use its leverage as North Korea’s top economic backer to pressure Kim into giving up his quest for a nuclear weapon that could threaten the U.S.

Xi is dispatching a special envoy, Song Tao, to visit North Korea on Friday, just a week after hosting Trump. The timing suggests that Song, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, may be carrying a message from the Xi-Trump talks.

“China is sending an Envoy and Delegation to North Korea — A big move, we’ll see what happens!” Trump tweeted Thursday.

Yonhap, citing unidentified diplomats in Beijing, said there was a good chance that Song would meet Kim on Sunday. The North Korean leader is said to rarely meet with senior foreign visitors.

North Korea’s Choe Ryong Hae, one of the most senior officials in the Workers’ Party of Korea, was likely to attend a party leaders’ meeting in Beijing later this month, Yonhap News reported, citing an unidentified source in the Chinese capital.

Trump will announce next week whether the U.S. will return North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terrorism, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. Such a move would trigger more sanctions and represent a shift after a 2008 decision by President George W. Bush to lift the designation as part of an effort to use diplomacy.

Separately, commercial satellite imagery indicates that North Korea is on an “aggressive” schedule to build and deploy its first operational ballistic-missile submarine, according to an analyst’s report on the 38 North website.


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