North Korea Missile Program Advancing Faster Than Expected, South's Defense Minister Says

The long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) is launched during a test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS

South Korea's defense minister claimed Tuesday that the North's missile defense program was advancing much faster than originally believed and that the use of the U.S.-developed and installed THAAD anti-missile system had been used for the first time to detect the authoritarian regime's latest test, Reuters reported.

Speaking to his nation's parliament, the South's Han Min-koo said THAAD detected Sunday's launch of a missile that the North claimed was capable of carrying and delivering a nuclear payload. The North has staunchly declared that it will not deter its missile and nuclear defense programs even as the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly called for it to do so.

"It is considered an IRBM [intermediate range ballistic missile] of enhanced caliber compared to Musudan missiles that have continually failed," Han said while also stating Sunday's test was "successful in flight." The Musudan is a type of missile capable of traveling distances of more than 1,800 miles to 2,400 miles.

Han also said that the North's defense proliferation was advancing faster than originally expected.

The North's state-run media agency said Sunday's test involved a mid-to-long range ballistic missile that could be blasted off and out of the planet's atmosphere and then return, and quoted leader Kim Jong Un as saying the U.S. mainland is in "sighting range for a strike." The missile flew as far as 489 miles and landed roughly 60 miles away from the coast of Russia's Vladivostok region.

North Korea has rebuffed cries for it to cease missile and nuclear testing, calling each of them acts of self defense.

"The DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] will bolster its self-defense capabilities as long as the United States continues its hostile policies toward the DPRK and imposes nuclear threats and makes blackmail," North Korean diplomat Ju Yong Choi told the U.N. Conference on Disarmament Tuesday in Geneva.

However, while THAAD's installation by the U.S. last month has been largely criticized by China—which has made claims the U.S. is only increasing tensions in the region and potentially could use the system's radar to spy on China—it did prove successful in detecting the North's latest in a number of tests that are escalating in frequency.

Because of the tensions and fears of what could be a bloody and costly conflict, the South has hinted it may not continue to steadfastly cooperate with the U.S. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in said the South had to "learn to say 'no,'" to the U.S. and to exhaust diplomatic ways of resolving issues with the North.