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North Korea testing new ICBMs disguised as space launches

North Korea's largest ICBM revealed Oct. 10, 2020. (Korean Central News Agency/Released)
March 10, 2022

The Biden administration first revealed on Thursday that North Korea’s latest two missile launches were tests of new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) systems and demonstrate “serious escalation” in the regime’s weapons strategy.

A senior administration official told reporters on a background call attended by American Military News that North Korea’s Feb. 26 and Mar. 4 missile tests “involve a relatively new” ICBM-capable platform first revealed by the regime during the Korean Workers’ Party parade on Oct. 10, 2020. The official noted the system is unlike North Korea’s last ICBM tests in 2017.

North Korea’s latest two missile launches didn’t demonstrate range or capability, but tests of the system’s elements are likely before its full range is tested, the official said, adding that the regime may be “disguising” the ICBM test as a space launch.

North Korea’s launches are a “brazen violation” of security resolutions and “risk destabilizing the security” in the region, the official added, noting that the U.S. would take “all necessary measures” to protect the region.

In a statement that came later Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said, the U.S. military had ramped up surveillance activity in the region after assessments revealed the new information about North Korea’s ICBM launches.

“Earlier this week, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command ordered intensified surveillance activity in the Yellow Sea, as well as enhanced readiness among our ballistic missile defense forces in the region. Our commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad,” Kirby said.

After North Korea unveiled its ICBM in October 2020, analysts with 38 North assessed that North Korea’s new ICBM was “much larger” than the regime’s 2017 ICBM and appeared to be “the world’s largest mobile ICBM.”

At the time, the analysts also assessed that the purpose of North Korea creating such a record weapon would be “to be able (or to be seen as able) to deliver a much larger payload to anywhere in the US” or demonstrate its “technical prowess,” “ability to threaten the US,” and “the permanence of its nuclear weapons status.”

In an April 2021 study by RAND, it was estimated that North Korea could have 200 nuclear weapons and several dozens of ICBMs by 2027.

The study projected that North Korea may use ICBMs to “coerce the United States into terminating sanctions against the North and providing other economic benefits” as well as to deter the U.S. and potentially break its alliance with South Korea.

North Korea’s 2017 ICBM test yielded an estimated blast of 250 KT – at least 16 times more powerful than the atomic bomb over Hiroshima — and a weapon of that size detonated in New York City “could cause roughly 2.9 million deaths and serious injuries,” the study assessed.