SEOUL -- North Korea appears to be razing a crucial test stand built for medium-range ballistic missiles after leader Kim Jong-un announced a decision in April to suspend missile and nuclear tests, according to 38 North, the website of a U.S. research institute.
The test stand at the Iha-ri base near the northwestern city of Kusong has been well maintained and ready for tests since the North test-fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile called "Pukguksong-2 (KN-15)" on February 12 last year.
Satellite imagery showed that after Kim's decision in April, work began during the second week of May to raze the facility, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a US missile expert, said in his analysis published by 38 North, adding work was completed by May 19 with no new construction spotted.
It is the only known facility used for land-based, canister-launched ballistic missile ejection tests critical for developing the solid-propellant Pukguksong-2 and its follow-on systems, Bermudez said. North Korea has developed canister-based ballistic missiles that could be carried on the transporter-erector-launcher (TEL).
"The stand could also have been used for testing larger canister-based ballistic missiles" such as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) displayed during a military parade in Pyongyang in April last year, he said.
"It is unclear whether the destruction of the stand is an indication that the North is suspending this portion of its missile program or that Pyongyang plans to erect other similar facilities in the future," the expert said.
The development of canister-based ballistic missiles is important for North Korea as it enhances abilities to more securely transport missiles over greater distances, protect systems from environmental conditions and reduce launch preparation times, Bermudez said. "This, in turn, has the potential to reduce maintenance requirements, provide for greater tactical flexibility and improve wartime survivability."
North Korea's long-range ballistic missile program, coupled with the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), has been a prime security concern in Seoul and Washington, though US experts believe Pyongyang is still years away from the operational deployment of a submarine carrying ballistic missile for wartime missions.
The design of the Pukguksong-2's launch canister and ejection system was based on the development of the Pukguksong-1 (KN-11) SLBM program, the expert said, adding the new tracked TEL for the Pukguksong-2 was built at the No. 95 Factory, one of the North's oldest tank and armored fighting vehicle production facilities.
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