North Korea ‘tests new high-thrust rocket engine’

State news agency report suggests engine will be used for country’s space and satellite-launching programme.

KIm Jong-un
Kim praised the test as 'a great event of historic significance' [File: KCNA/Reuters]

North Korea says it has conducted a ground test of a new type of high-thrust rocket engine that leader Kim Jong-un is calling a revolutionary breakthrough for the country’s space programme.

Kim attended the test at the Sohae launch site, according to a report on Sunday by the Korean Central News Agency, which said the test was intended to confirm the “new type” engine’s thrust power and gauge the reliability of its control system and structural safety.

The KCNA report said Kim called the test “a great event of historic significance” for the country’s indigenous rocket industry.

He also said the “whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries” and claimed the test marks what will be known as the “March 18 revolution” in the development of the country’s rocket industry.

The report indicated the engine is to be used for North Korea’s space and satellite-launching programme.

Claim questioned

North Korea is banned by the UN from conducting long-range missile tests, but it claims its satellite programme is for peaceful use, a claim many in the United States and elsewhere believe is questionable.

The test has been reported by KCNA as Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, is in China on a tour of Asia that has been closely focused on concerns over how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.

Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Beijing on Sunday, said: “Just hours before Tillerson met Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korea tested its new rocket engine that is possibly part of its steps to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the US.

“It underscored once more the inability of China to rein in North Korea.

“Tillerson’s meeting with Xi was a courtesy call that only lasted seven minutes. The real talking was done behind the scenes on Saturday, principally with Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, and North Korea topped the agenda.”

North Korean officials have said that under a five-year plan they intend to launch more Earth observation satellites and what would be the country’s first geostationary communications satellite – which would be a major technological advance.

Getting that kind of satellite into place would probably require a more powerful engine than its previous ones.

The North also claims it is trying to build a viable space programme that would include a moon launch within the next 10 years.

north korea nuclear missile test infographic

“We’ve seen flickers of cooperation between the US and China but no firm agreement on how to deal with North Korea,” Al Jazeera’s Brown said.

“China has called for cool, calm dialogue but the US has said that the patience of the international community has been worn very thin. The coaxing, the cajoling, the sanctions, threats – all have not worked.”

It is hard to know whether the engine test was deliberately timed to coincide with Tillerson’s visit, but North Korea has been highly critical of ongoing US-South Korea war games just south of the Demilitarised Zone and often conducts some sort of high-profile operation of its own in protest.

Ballistic missiles

Earlier this month, it fired off four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, reportedly reaching within 200km of Japan‘s shoreline.

While building ever better long-range missiles and smaller nuclear warheads to pair with them, North Korea has marked a number of successes in its space programme.

It launched its latest satellite – the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Brilliant Star 4 – into orbit on February 7 last year, just one month after conducting what it claims was its first hydrogen-bomb test.

It put its first satellite into orbit in 2012, a feat few other countries have achieved. Rival South Korea, for example, has yet to do so.

Victor Gao, director of the China National Association of International Studies, says China eventually wants to see the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

“The situation on the Korea Peninsula is deteriorating. There is continued nuclear testing by the DPRK [North Korea] and there is the proposed installation of the THAAD missile defence system in South Korea,” he told Al Jazeera from Beijing on Sunday.

“China is urging all parties to exercise great caution in a bid to lower, rather than further escalate, tensions. Beijing [also] does not want the THAAD missile system installed in South Korea.

“US-China trade right now is worth almost $600bn, and it is a fact that China has a huge surplus in its trade with the US. What China wants to see is that, rather than get at each other’s throat, both China and the US further increase their exports to each other, eventually to reach about $1 trillion.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies