Experts Say Photos Reveal North Korean Missile Program is Much More Advanced Than Thought

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While most media outlets have led with headlines about President Trump’s speeches this week, North Korea has continued to escalate tensions with their development of nuclear missiles. One subtle development showed images from a visit Kim Jong-un payed to a missile factory, and it has experts concerned.

North Korean state media KCNA published the images of Kim Jong-un’s visit to the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Sciences.

“He instructed the institute to produce more solid-fuel rocket engines and rocket warhead tips by further expanding engine production process,” their statement said.

Yet it wasn’t the state media hype that had people concerned. It was the pictures. CNN spoke with David Schmerler, research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “This is the North Koreans showing us, or at least portraying, that their solid-fuel missile program is improving at a steady rate,” he said.

A diagram (with notations here from CNN) on one wall reportedly shows a “Pukguksong-3.” The Pukguksong line of missiles are solid-fuel, medium range missiles.

“Solid fuel missiles are much faster to deploy,”¬†Michael Duitsman, also a research associate at the James Martin Center, noted.” A solid fuel missile is always fueled so all they have to do is drive it to the place they want to launch it. It’s much easier to put into action, much harder to catch before it launches because they’re a lot less in terms of launch preparations that could be done.”

Another image of the leader shows a wound fiber prototype rocket casing. These would be lighter than most metals, allowing for superior strength and extended range.

“It’s not a missile test but it’s still very disconcerting for people who look at the North Korean ballistic missile program,” Duitsman noted. “Seeing the casing … is sooner than I expected.”

When the images first appeared Wednesday, analysts wondered if there could have been a mistake. The images may have revealed more than the North Koreans had intended. Or perhaps the images and mock-ups were an attempt to fool their enemies.

“I don’t think there’s any accident about this, the shot clearly shows Pukguksong-3, this was the North Koreans showing us what we could possibly see soon,” Duitsman said.

The other possibility is that this is a direct response to President Trump’s speech in Phoenix Tuesday. After saying that his warning to North Korea had not been strong enough, he thanked the country for “starting to respect us.”

“And you see what’s going on in North Korea,” Trump said. “All of a sudden, I don’t know — who knows. But I can tell you, what I said, that’s not strong enough. Some people said it’s too strong, it’s not strong enough.”

“But Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact. And maybe — probably not — but maybe something positive can come about. They won’t tell you that, but maybe something positive can come about.”