Latest North Korean Missile Sparks New Debate Over Possible Russian Role

North Korea’s latest Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile – its first ICBM to use solid rocket fuel – has ignited a new debate over a possible Russian role in the nuclear-armed state’s dramatic missile development. If confirmed, the launch would mean that the North has advanced to miniaturizing and fitting multiple nuclear warheads onto such a missile and delivering them to targets within the continental United States, a significant weapons goal for Kim Jong Un.

North Korean media referred to the successful launch of the three-stage Hwasong-18 as the “first flight test” of the new weapon, though the North did not specify whether the weapon flew at its total capacity and range. Japan’s defense agency, meanwhile, said the HS-18 reached an altitude of more than 1,001 kilometers, which could place the warhead within reach of the western United States.

Pyongyang also didn’t say how far it traveled. Still, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the lofted trajectory, longer duration, and higher apogee than the first test on April 13 this year proved that the HS-18 could be launched on an operational flight. He added that the North will likely test the system several more times to hone the ICBM’s capabilities.

The solid-fuel engine is vital to quicker deployment of the ICBMs, which are critical to the survival of Kim’s regime. He has staked his political standing on a strong military that can deter a U.S. attack and wrest more concessions in eventual talks with immense power, such as China or Russia.

A report published on Thursday by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank that studies arms control issues, argued that the solid-fuel ICBM is likely the result of cooperation with Russia. The report’s author, Theodore Postol, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that visual similarities between the HS-18 and the Soviet-designed Topol-M (also known as the SS-27), a liquid-fueled ICBM that is in service with the Russian military, are striking.

He said that if Russia transferred an ICBM capable of reaching the continental United States, it could violate several UN Security Council resolutions signed by Moscow that prohibit support for North Korea’s missile program. A senior analytic correspondent for NK News, a Seoul-based website that tracks North Korea’s missile activity, agreed that the North appears to have received a Topol-M, saying it could be spotted in the same fields where previous ICBM tests have been held. Those fields have been reinforced with concrete to help conceal the launch sites.

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