(Reuters) – North Korea has conducted a record number of missile launches this year, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch on Friday that Japan’s defence minister said was capable of striking the U.S. mainland.
The nuclear-armed state is rapidly advancing its arsenal while denuclearisation talks have stalled.
Here are some facts about the launches and the missiles that North Korea is developing:
RECORD NUMBER OF LAUNCHES
North Korea has launched more than 60 missiles this year, including 23 missiles of various types in a single day on Nov. 2.
Its record schedule began in January with the launch of a new “hypersonic missile” and went on to include long-range cruise missiles; short-range ballistic missiles fired from rail cars, airports, and a submarine; and its first ICBM launches since 2017.
North Korea claimed in March to have successfully tested its largest ICBM ever, the massive Hwasong-17.
South Korean and U.S. officials dispute that, saying it appears that the North in fact fired an older Hwasong-15 ICBM, while some apparent Hwasong-17 tests ended in failure.
The March test was its highest missile flight to date, sending an ICBM more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles) into space. On Oct. 4 it demonstrated its longest-range test when it fired an intermediate-range missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean some 4,600 km away.
On Friday, the North launched another suspected ICBM that reached an altitude of 6,100 km and flew 1,000 km.
The return to long-range testing has raised the stakes for the United States and other distant countries that had played down some of North Korea’s short-range weapons.
Many of North Korea’s most recent short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) such as its KN-23 and KN-24 are designed to fly on a lower, “depressed” trajectory and potentially manoeuvre, complicating efforts to detect and intercept them.
North Korea said it tested a new type of “hypersonic missile”. These usually fly at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles and at more than five times the speed of sound – or about 6,200 km per hour (3,850 mph).
Despite their name, analysts say the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed but their manoeuvrability, which can help them to avoid interception.
Analysts also say that the size of the Hwasong-17, as well as work on what North Korea says is technology for controlling satellites, suggest that Pyongyang is looking to tip its ICBMs with multiple, manoeuvrable nuclear warheads and decoys that can help them to evade defences.
This year North Korea has test-fired missiles from different locations and launch platforms in what analysts say is an effort to simulate a conflict and make it difficult for enemies to detect and destroy the missiles.
In January, North Korea launched a pair of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from a train near the northern border with China, in what state media said was a short-notice drill aimed at boosting the proficiency of troops operating the missiles.
Despite the country’s limited and sometimes unreliable rail network, rail-mobile missiles are a relatively cheap and efficient option to improve the survivability of their nuclear forces.
North Korea also conducted tests from the international airport outside Pyongyang, and launched a new, short-range missile from its experimental missile submarine. It has also indicated that an operational missile submarine would soon be deployed.
TACTICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS
If North Korea resumes nuclear testing, it could include development of smaller “tactical” warheads meant for battlefield use and designed to fit on short-range missiles, according to South Korean officials.
In April, the North test-fired a new, short-range missile that state media said was for “enhancing the efficiency in the operation of tactical nukes”, marking the first time it has linked a specific system to tactical nuclear weapons.
Analysts say putting small warheads on short-range missiles could represent a dangerous change in the way North Korea deploys and plans to use nuclear weapons, allowing Pyongyang to field more of them. Instead of threatening a few cities to deter an attack, it could use them against a wide range of military targets in the South.
(Reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Edmund Klamann)