A new North Korean missile base being built near its border with China is larger in scale than existing bases and can eventually launch intercontinental missiles, South Korea’s defense minister said on Tuesday.
North Korea’s missile program is a pressing security concern because the secretive state has an arsenal of 800 ballistic missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan and is working to build a functional missile that can hit U.S. territory.
The new base is 80 percent finished, Minister Lee Sang-hee told parliament.
North Korea has conducted an engine ignition test for a long-range missile at the base in Tongchang-ri about 50 km (30 miles) from the Chinese border, intelligence sources have been quoted as saying by South Korean media.
“Our assessment is that it can launch larger missiles or satellites than is possible at the Taepodong base,” Lee said. Taepodong is the name of an east coast missile base and also the North’s long-range missile series.
The North launched the Taepodong-2, a multi-stage missile under development with a possible range of 3,500 – 4,300 kms (about 2,200 – 2,700 miles), in July 2006 from the east coast. The missile fizzled and blew up a few seconds into flight.
North Korea, which conducted its first and only nuclear test in October 2006, has produced about 50 kg (110 lb) of plutonium, which experts said would be enough for about eight nuclear bombs.
Despite its long-running program to develop a delivery system, experts doubt the North has mastered the technology to make a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a missile.
In a show of force timed to tense negotiations on ending its nuclear arms program with the United States, the North fired two short-range missiles in October that the South played down as part of regular military drill.
(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Bill Tarrant, Reuters)