Recent pictures taken from space suggest North Korea has been testing rocket propulsion systems, another indication of the nation's ongoing pursuit of a strategic ballistic missile, the Associated Press reported on Monday.
The satellite images captured through the end of September of the Dongchang-ri missile launch complex in the nation's northwest were analyzed by the website 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Since an unsuccessful April attempt to send a long-range rocket into space, it appears Pyongyang has carried out a minimum of two rocket engine trials, according to the analysis.
"Pyongyang's large motor tests are another clear sign that its missile program is moving forward," 38 North editor Joel Wit said.
A reconnaissance picture taken from space on Sept. 17 reveals that a large number of fuel containers seen in April located close to a platform utilized for rocket engine tests are now gone while nearby flora has been torched, evidently by the emissions from a rocket engine. A Sept. 28 picture suggests an additional trial.
Imagery systems specialist Nick Hansen assessed that the engine tests were possibly for the massive KN-08 strategic missile that Pyongyang unveiled in an armed forces parade earlier this year. They could also be used for the Unha 3 rocket that broke apart shortly after liftoff in the April launch.
Images taken in late September also reveal building on the highest stand of a launch system at Dongchang-ri, presumably to allow it to handle missiles of even bigger size than the Unha 3 or KN-08, according to the website.
38 North said it is not clear if Pyongyang is readying to fire another missile in the short-term though it did forecast more rocket launches to come in the initial six months of next year. "Whether there will be another long-range missile test this spring remains unclear but it is a distinct possibility," Wit said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in October the North is maintaining efforts to ready additional missile launches. Pyongyang was angered by the announcement of a new U.S.-South Korea defense deal that permits Seoul to extend the permitted range of its domestically produced ballistic missiles. North Korea claims possession of long-grange missiles capable of striking the mainland United States, but all of the country's assumed strategic missile test launches to date have been unsuccessful.
The Stalinist regime has insisted in the face of widespread international condemnation over its failed April rocket launch that it has a sovereign right to conduct space launches and would continue to do so.
"These [rocket engine] tests, critical for the development of new rockets, appear to have been liquid-fueled, first stage engines" necessary for firing either space rockets or bigger long-range ballistic missiles, CNN reported from the 38 North analysis.