Kim Jong Un's scientists have surprised many with the speed at which they have overcome the technical obstacles to having a credible and effective long-range, nuclear-capable missile. Julian Ryall reports.
When North Korea's dictator Kim Jong Un delivered his annual address in Pyongyang on January 1 and declared that his country was in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that would be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets in the continental United States, many viewed the regime's claim with skepticism.
But on June 4, North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that the military would be ready to test-fire an ICBM in the near future.
"The great success of test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which we are sure to achieve, will mark a historic watershed moment in the failure of the US hostile policy against us," an editorial in the newspaper stated.
"Historically speaking, the US has never dared to go to war with a country that possesses nuclear weapons or ICBMs."
North Korea last week fired a salvo of what appeared to be anti-ship cruise missiles at targets off its east coast
It added that recent missile tests have "proved" that "anywhere in the US" is within the range of North Korean missiles.
On June 8, North Korea fired a salvo of what appeared to be anti-ship cruise missiles at targets off its east coast. The launches were the fifth since Moon Jae-in was sworn in as South Korea's president on May 10.
The most significant of the North's recent tests, however, came just four days after Moon's inauguration and demonstrated the strides that Kim's scientists have made in a remarkably short space of time.
Defense officials in South Korea and the US confirmed that the launch of the liquid-fuel Hwasong-12 missile was a success. North Korea claimed the weapon reached an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers and travelled a distance of 787 kilometers before splashing down in the Sea of Japan.
The missile took a steep parabolic route that tested its ability to survive re-entry into the atmosphere.
North Korea's state media reported that the missile - capable of carrying a "large-size, heavy nuclear warhead" - had come through "the worst re-entry situation" and struck its intended target.
That claim was confirmed by South Korean government sources, who told the JoongAng Daily newspaper that analysis of data communication from North Korea's missile control center confirmed the warhead survived the 5,000 degrees Celsius and severe vibration it experienced on re-entry.
Mastered guidance and control
After numerous test launches, North Korean scientists have already mastered long-range guidance and control capabilities, while a series of underground tests have demonstrated that the regime of Kim Jong Un has acquired nuclear weapons.
Analysts say the last remaining hurdle that North Korean missiles have to overcome is consistently surviving re-entry, which will probably be the reason for the ICBM launch that the North is planning.
"The speed at which they have developed the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead over a long distance is extremely concerning," said Kim Jae-chang, a former general in the South Korean Army and joint chairman of The Council on Korea-US Security Studies.
"The exact technical developments that they have made are only estimates, but many experts now believe they will be able to launch an ICBM by the end of this year," he told DW. "And that is a very serious concern to the South.
"We estimate that the military purpose of North Korea developing an ICBM capability is to prevent the US from augmenting or relieving its forces in South Korea in the event of an emergency," he said.
The belief is that the North can threaten the US mainland as well as its military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, such as those in Japan, Hawaii or the Pacific island of Guam, and interdict naval forces heading for the Korean peninsula.
In tandem with the threat of an ICBM launch, there are indications that North Korea is preparing to carry out a new underground nuclear test at its Punngye-ri proving grounds.
Media reports have suggested that satellite reconnaissance has picked up renewed activity at the site, with scientists gathering at the facility, more vehicles in the vicinity and roads in surrounding areas closed to non-military traffic.
10 kiloton test
North Korea conducted its last nuclear test in September, with experts suggesting the blast was 10 kilotons, the largest the North has ever carried out.
"Pyongyang's actions and demands have been surprisingly consistent for many years," said Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunkyo University. "They want one-on-one dialogue with the US, because they want to be respected and hope to extract concessions from the rest of the world.
"And they have concluded that the most likely way of succeeding with those aims is to threaten the US to the highest degree possible," he said.
The most effective way of threatening the US is through the development of multiple weapons systems, including nuclear warheads, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and ICBMs, Mulloy said.
And recent test launches with long-range missiles surviving re-entry and accurately descending on a target would be cause for serious concern in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, he said, as the speed at which they travelled would mean that any anti-missile defensive system "would struggle to cope."
"It is clear that they have put an enormous amount of resources into these weapons development programs and made advances that were far more rapid than I and most other analysts believed were possible," Mulloy added. "They may have invested so heavily in nuclear weapons and ICBMs because they do not think that they have anything else to bargain with."