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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea's new ICBM sends chilling reminder to US

New rocket capable of carrying multiple warheads, experts say

SEOUL -- North Korea seemingly had one specific audience in mind as the country unveiled its largest intercontinental ballistic missile -- sending the U.S. a powerful reminder that Pyongyang, with its rapidly advancing missile technology, must be taken seriously. 

The new ICBM, carried on an 11-axle vehicle during Saturday's military parade, is believed to be capable of reaching the U.S. mainland as well as carrying multiple warheads, according to military analysts, who add that the device has yet to be completed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will likely attempt to restart denuclearization talks with Washington after next month's U.S. presidential election. Pyongyang watchers see Kim using the new, massive ICBM as leverage to gain the upper hand.

"It is disappointing to see [North Korea] continuing to prioritize its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile program," a U.S. senior administration official said Saturday.

The new missile, more than 2 meters longer than the regime's Hwasong-15, tested in November 2017, would be the biggest ICBM in the world, according to South Korean media.

North Korea likely has developed a rocket engine with the thrust needed to carry a heavier payload. The missile's diameter is 30 cm larger than that of its predecessor. The ICBM potentially could carry two to three nuclear warheads, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported, citing expert analysis.

Countries such as the U.S., China and Russia possess multi-warhead missiles. The warheads separate from the missile outside of Earth's atmosphere, hitting several targets at once. The threat from Pyongyang would be amplified due to the complexity of intercepting the multiple warheads.

However, many believe North Korea has yet to complete the technology to miniaturize nuclear warheads for ICBMs, or tech that allows for the rockets to re-enter the atmosphere successfully.

"North Korean technology to reduce the mass of nuclear warheads is not at a level that makes multi-warhead [missiles] possible," said Kim Dong-yup, a professor at Kyungnam University in South Korea who is versed in Pyongyang's military advances.

North Korea also displayed a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, dubbed the Pukguksong-4, at the parade. The body of the SLBM appears thicker than the Pukguksong-3, which was test-launched in October 2019.

The Pukguksong-4 is a multiple-warhead weapon based on the JL-2, the SLBM developed by China, according to the opinion of an expert cited by Dong-A Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper.

The true capabilities of the new missiles remain a mystery, but the weapons likely will be tested going forward. At the end of last year, Kim Jong Un said his country was justified in restarting ICBM tests because the regime is no longer bound by past commitments. Kim pinned the blame on joint military drills conducted the U.S. and South Korea, as well as on United Nations sanctions.

Saturday's parade also displayed a range of short-range ballistic missiles that have been tested repeatedly since last year, signaling weapons are close to deployment, experts say.

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