North Korean Missile Test: Observers Scramble to Identify Mystery Weapons That May Be Modeled on Russian Technology

North Korea conducted a fresh short-range missile tests on Wednesday, its second such launch in less than a week as Pyongyang tries to exert pressure on Washington and Seoul before major military exercises commence and nuclear talks resume.

Two short-range ballistic missiles of an unknown type were fired from a site close to the eastern city of Wonsan, where such tests are often conducted.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said the projectiles flew around 155 miles at a maximum altitude of 19 miles before landing off the country's east coast, The Associated Press reported.

The South Korean JCS said the North's repeated launches "are not helpful to efforts to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and we urge [North Korea] to stop this kind of behavior." Both the U.S. and South Korea are working to establish more details about the missiles launched on Wednesday.

The test is the second in less than a week. North Korea is attempting to ratchet up pressure on the U.S. and South Korea to cancel a major military exercise planned for August, while the secretive nation is also trying to maintain a negotiating edge as American and North Korean representatives prepare to re-open stalled denuclearization talks.

Last week's launches sent two short-range missiles around 370 miles at a maximum altitude of 30 miles. The South Korean military said the missiles' flight data indicated similarities between them and the Russian-made short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missile.

A North Korean version of the Iskander would be able to hit any target in South Korea, including the 28,500 U.S. forces stationed there. Deployed with Russian forces from 2006 onward, the Iskander can fly at Mach 5.9—over 4,500 miles per hour.

Harry J. Kazianis, the Center for the National Interest's senior director of Korean Studies, said Wednesday's test "is a message to Washington and Seoul: stop joint exercises or we will continue to show off our own offensive military capabilities and raise tensions to a slow boil over time."

Sean King, vice president at the Park Strategies policy consulting firm, noted there are conflicting reports as to whether Wednesday's missiles were indeed of the new North Korean type similar to the Russian Iskanker.

Regardless, Kazianis pointed to the "design, flight pattern and imagery" available for recent launches, which all indicate "a more advanced short-range ballistic missile—and something very dangerous."

The American THAAD—Terminal High Altitude Area Defense—system is currently deployed in South Korea to defend against North Korean missiles. But a new North Korean missile means a new challenge for the THAAD.

"Such a missile, if based loosely on the Iskander, flies in a way to make it hard for radar to pick it up, and in fact, there have been rumors in the press that South Korean radar had trouble detecting the previous set of missiles, a fact that if true is very concerning," Kazianis explained.

Jenny Town, managing editor of the specialist North Korean analysis website 38 North, told Newsweek there are "a lot of ifs, but essentially the North Koreans have demonstrated an evolving capability against regional targets."

Kazianis also noted that no matter how sophisticated a defensive system is, it can still be defeated by an overwhelming or "saturation" barrage of missiles. "You can have the best missile defenses on the planet, however, if you don't have enough of them even the most primitive of missiles can defeat," he told Newsweek. "Math will win every single time."

Though the short-range tests are in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions, President Donald Trump has refused to publicly condemn the launches. He has contradicted allies and senior members of his own administration in dismissing the tests as inconsequential.

But Kim Jong Un is clearly sending a message. Earlier this month, the young dictator was also pictured inspecting a submarine which appeared to be designed to be able to fire ballistic missiles while at sea.

This would be the country's first submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles from launch tubes, making detection and destruction of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons much more difficult.

King noted that the fact that the missiles used in recent tests have been mobile-launched, as opposed to static, "underscores what a meaningless 'concession' it was when North Korea offered to dismantle its Sohae fixed-launch missile testing site last year."

Kazianis said the president is correct to believe that recent test launches do not change the balance of power in the region, nor do they require "any sort of rash or provocative counter move." Indeed, he noted that the missile launches are as important for their domestic propaganda value as for international diplomacy.

For that reason, these tests are unlikely to be the last. The U.S.-South Korean drills are due to commence on August 5 and continue until the end of the month. North Korean launches are likely to accompany the start and end of the exercises, Kazianis predicted.

"I think Washington gets this and has handled these recent missile tests quite well," he added. "However, if Kim were to start testing longer range missiles—say [intermediate-range ballistic missiles] like the ones that flew over Japan in 2017 or [intercontinental ballistic missiles] that can hit the U.S.—that is a clear red line for Trump. If that happens we are back to the days of 'fire and fury' and potential war."

But for King, Trump's insistence that short-range missiles are no threat may undermine vital regional alliances.

"He's implying that when push comes to shove, South Korea and Japan are on their own," King explained. "Comments like these fuel doubts and uncertainties among our allies about U.S. commitment to their security which is a win not only for Pyongyang but also for Beijing."

Town suggested that "presumably, Trump is largely focused on keeping the door open for negotiations on the bigger issues of North Korea's nuclear program." She concurred that regional allies will be more concerned. Such launches "demonstrate capabilities that pose greater threats the region, exploiting weaknesses in U.S.-South Korean missile defense systems," Town explained.

They also pose "direct challenges" to President Moon Jae-in, she continued, who has invested so much political capital in trying to improve North-South relations. "How long can he justify continued 'good will' toward the North when they continue demonstrating a growing military capability against Seoul?"

This article has been updated to include comments from Jenny Town.

North Korea, missile, launch, test, new, Iskander
South Koreans watch on a screen a file image of reporting North Korea's missile launch on July 31, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty