North Korea's weekend test of a high-thrust rocket-engine, purportedly used to launch satellites, raised concerns the reclusive nation was one step closer toward creating an intercontinental missile capable of targeting the United States, South Korea and their allies, analysts said Monday.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Defense Ministry warned the north made "meaningful progress" in learning how to successfully launch a guided ballistic missile Sunday, though further research would be needed to determine what the latest launch test meant for the nation’s nuclear operations.
North Korea is still a far-shot away from ever accomplishing its goal of attaining nuclear missile launching capabilities, most experts said. But the peninsula conflict intensified in recent months. The country tested at least five missile launches since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Each test is in direct defiance of sanctions the United Nations placed against the north during former President Barack Obama’s tenure in the Oval Office.
"Through this test, it is found that engine function has made meaningful progress but further analysis is needed for exact thrust and possible uses," South Korea’s Defense Ministry said in a press briefing. A spokesman for the agency declined to comment further on the north’s potential threats, though analysts said it was a "dangerous" first step in launching a long-range missile.
"This was a comprehensive test for the first-stage rocket for an ICBM and that is why it was dangerous," Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in South Korea, told Reuters Monday.
The news arrived as Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state and former CEO of Exxon Mobile, was on his first mission to Asia. The new head of state rebuked North Korea’s missile tests during his trip, warning military action is "an option" for the U.S. if it was provoked. It remained unclear what would trigger a military response, however.
"Certainly, we do not want things to get to a military conflict," Tillerson said Friday. "But obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response… If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table."