SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered his officials to expand a satellite launch facility to fire a variety of rockets, state media reported Friday, as the U.S. and South Korean militaries concluded the North is testing a new intercontinental ballistic missile system.
Experts earlier said North Korea could perform a satellite-carrying rocket launch soon in violation of U.N. resolutions after conducting a string of tests recently aimed at modernizing its missile arsenals and applying more pressure on the Biden administration amid stalled diplomacy. Such a rocket launch by North Korea would be its most significant provocation since late 2017 and a violation of its self-imposed moratorium on long-range and nuclear tests.
North Korea’s neighbors detected two ballistic launches last week in the country’s first weapons firings in about a month. North Korea later said it was testing cameras and other systems to be installed on a spy satellite but didn’t disclose what missiles or rockets it used.
After analyzing those launches, the U.S. and South Korean militaries said they’ve concluded the North’s two recent missile launches involved an ICBM system under development that the North first unveiled during a military parade in October 2020.
“The purpose of these tests, which did not demonstrate ICBM range, was likely to evaluate this new system before conducting a test at full range in the future, potentially disguised as a space launch,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement Thursday.
Kirby said the U.S. military ordered “enhanced readiness” among its ballistic missile defense forces in the region and intensified surveillance activities off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast.
“The United States strongly condemns these launches, which are a brazen violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions, needlessly raise tensions and risk destabilizing the security situation in the region,” Kirby said.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Friday released a similar assessment and said North Korea must stop any act that raises tensions and causes security concerns in the region immediately.
A ministry statement said Seoul and Washington decided to release the information because they believe the international community must speak in one voice to oppose the North’s development of a further missile capability.
On Friday, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported Kim inspected the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in the northwest and ordered officials to “modernize it on an expansion basis so that various rockets could be launched to carry multi-purpose satellites.”
“He stressed that it is the noble duty of our party and space scientists and technicians in our era to turn the launching ground, associated with our state’s great dream and ambition for a space power, into an ultramodern advanced base,” KCNA said.
North Korea conducted two successful satellite launches from the Sohae facility in 2012 and 2016. It said they were Earth observation satellites developed under its peaceful space development program, but the U.N. bans a North Korean satellite launch because it could be a cover for testing missile technology.
Kim said earlier this week that North Korea needs reconnaissance satellites to monitor “the aggression troops of the U.S. imperialism and its vassal forces.”
But some experts question North Korea’s spy satellite capacity because it hasn’t released high-resolution imagery among recent photos said to be taken from space. They also say there is no evidence the two satellites launched in 2012 and 2016 ever transmitted images.
In 2017, North Korea carried out three ICBM launches that demonstrated a range that could include the U.S. mainland. Analysts say it lacks mastery of a few remaining technologies, such as a reentry vehicle, to have functioning ICBMs that can carry nuclear warheads.
In 2018, North Korea unilaterally suspended long-range and nuclear tests before it entered now-dormant denuclearization talks with the United States. The talks collapsed in 2019 due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions on the North. Top Pyongyang officials recently hinted at lifting the 2018 weapons test moratorium.
Observers say North Korea could conduct a spy satellite launch or a ICBM test ahead of its major political anniversary in April — the 110th birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un.