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Researchers: North Korea developing arsenal to evade missile defenses

Researchers: North Korea developing arsenal to evade missile defenses
A photo released by the official North Korean Central News Agenc shows a live fire test of a newly developed super-large multiple rocket launcher last August.  File Photo by KCNA/EPA-EFE 

SEOUL, July 16 (UPI) -- North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs and poses a growing threat to countries in the region such as South Korea and Japan, according to a report by the U.S. government's Congressional Research Service released this week.

Pyongyang's recent tests of short- and medium-range missiles and rocket launch systems demonstrate increasingly sophisticated precision, maneuverability and reliability, the report said, and "pose the most acute near-term threats to other nations."

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"Recent missile tests suggest that North Korea is striving to build a credible nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses," said the report, which was released Tuesday.

The U.S.-developed Patriot, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems are deployed in the region.

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After a 17-month hiatus, North Korea began testing weapons again last year, including launches of the KN-23, a short-range ballistic missile similar to the Russian Iskander, which flies closer to the ground and is more maneuverable than traditional ballistic missiles. First tested in May 2019, the KN-23 is "the most notable advance to the North Korean inventory in the smaller category of weapons," according to the CRS report.

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The newer KN-24, which analysts believe is modeled after the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System and the KN-25 guided multiple-launch rocket system, also "poses significant threats to South Korea and U.S. assets on the peninsula," the report said.

The advances "suggest that the North Korean test program may seek to achieve more than a simple political statement," the report said. "North Korean tests have demonstrated growing success and, coupled with increased operational training exercises, suggest a pattern designed to strengthen the credibility of North Korea's regional nuclear deterrent strategy."

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On Tuesday, a Japanese defense white paper concluded that North Korea had the capability to launch an attack against Japan with a nuclear warhead.

North Korea's developments in smaller missiles, such as a shift toward solid propellants and satellite guidance systems, could carry over to its longer-range weapons, the CRS report added, which would "provide the projectiles greater mobility and survivability prior to launch and greater potency and precision on target."

In 2017, North Korea launched a pair of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the Hwasong-14 (designated KN-20 by the United States) and the Hwasong-15 (KN-22), which demonstrated a range sufficient to reach the entire continental United States.

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North Korea continues to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and aims to develop a warhead small enough to mount on a long-range ballistic missile, the report said.

United Nations Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile tests by North Korea.

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year in Hanoi, Vietnam, failed to produce an agreement on issues such as sanctions relief for the North and a timetable for proceeding with denuclearization.

Washington's top envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, said last week during a visit to Seoul that the United States is ready for further dialogue with North Korea under the right conditions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo downplayed the hopes of another Trump-Kim summit on Wednesday, however, saying the president would only want to engage again if there were hopes of making real progress.

"You need to have a willing partner, and the North Koreans have chosen at this point in time not to engage in a way that can lead to a potential solution," Pompeo said at a forum in Washington, D.C. hosted by news website The Hill.

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Pyongyang has expressed little desire for another meeting with Washington in recent weeks, with Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, saying Friday in state media that another summit is not necessary "unless the U.S. shows decisive change in its stand."

Inter-Korean relations have also been strained, as Pyongyang cut off all communications with Seoul and destroyed a shared liaison office last month in retaliation for defectors sending information leaflets on balloons across the border.

The CRS report said North Korea's continued weapons development may be intended to give Pyongyang increased diplomatic leverage but could also contribute to the threat of a military escalation in the region.

"Such an approach likely reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy strategy -- lending more credibility as it demonstrates capability -- but it also raises questions about crisis stability and escalation control," the report said.

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