SEOUL -- The powerful rocket North Korea launched Wednesday could be a step toward missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads, analysts have said after seeing pictures of the new and improved projectile.
Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece for the North's ruling Workers' Party of Korea, published photos of the Hwasong-15, the country's latest intercontinental ballistic missile, at liftoff and mounted on what appears to be a newly developed mobile launch system. The missile seems to involve a completely new rocket, judging by its size and shape, South Korea's Ministry of National Defense said Thursday. The ministry's initial analysis Wednesday claimed the Hwasong-15 was merely a retooled version of the Hwasong-14 ICBMs launched in July.
The latest missile's nose cone is more rounded than that of its predecessor. This could indicate it was designed with an eye toward a multiple-warhead system, Chang Young-keun of the Korea Aerospace University said in response to questions from South Korea's Yonhap News Agency. It was generally agreed that inserting multiple warheads into the Hwasong-14's pointed nose cone would be difficult.
A missile capable of striking multiple sites at once would be more difficult for ship- and land-based defense systems to fully neutralize than a single-warhead missile. North Korea, long thought to be seeking this technology, would pose a much greater threat as a result.
The missile's shape may also be related to technology intended to protect its payload from the stress of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, said Kim Jung-bong, a professor at Hanzhong University. Heavy use of high-performance material such as carbon fiber could account for the rounded form, Kim said.
Re-entry technology is considered a major hurdle blocking North Korea from deploying a functional ICBM. A warhead must survive the intense heat and pressure of re-entry to be useful as a weapon. The North is thought to have obtained high-performance materials, using them in its quest to clear that barrier.
A rounder nose cone also allows for a larger payload, perhaps intended to let Pyongyang mount a nuclear warhead on the rocket, a source at Japan's Ministry of Defense said. The North's technology is "certainly advancing," Adm. Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces' Joint Staff, told reporters Thursday. Japan will operate under the assumption that "the threat has grown," he said.
The Hwasong-15 is 30cm wider than its predecessor at around 2 meters, one expert said. This suggests the missile contains two engines in the first of its two stages, up from one in the Hwasong-14, said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. The increased thrust could put the entire U.S. mainland within the missile's range without any reduction in the weight of the payload, the professor said.
A Rodong Sinmun editorial posted online Thursday called the launch of the Hwasong-15 a watershed moment for the North. Many think locking down multiple-warhead technology will take some time. But Pyongyang's progress toward a functional ICBM is undeniable.