Seoul / AFP
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has claimed an â€œhistoricâ€ advance in the countryâ€™s nuclear strike capability with the successful test of a solid-fuel rocket engine, state media said on Thursday.
The announcement came as South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered the military to â€œstrengthen readinessâ€ in the wake of multiple North Korean threats to launch nuclear and conventional missile attacks.
Tensions have been soaring on the divided Korean peninsula since the North carried out its fourth nuclear test on January 6, followed a month later by a long-range rocket launch that was widely seen as a disguised ballistic missile test.
Angered by ongoing large-scale South Korea-US military drills, Pyongyang has ramped up the rhetoric in recent weeks, maintaining a daily barrage of bellicose warnings aimed at Seoul and Washington.
The solid-fuel test was personally monitored by Kim, who said it would allow for a major upgrade of the Northâ€™s missile delivery systems that would â€œstrike great horror and terror into the hearts of our enemiesâ€, the state-run KCNA news agency said.
Solid-fuel missiles would have distinct advantages â€” including greater mobility and the ability to launch within minutes â€” over Pyongyangâ€™s current, largely liquid-fuelled inventory.
The North is already understood to use solid fuel for its short-range, road-mobile ballistic missiles, but not for medium-range or untested long-range missiles.
According to KCNA, the solid-fuel test was of a â€œlarge outputâ€ engine and included separation testing.
â€œThis is an historic and unforgettable day,â€ Kim was quoted as saying.
In recent weeks, North Korea has also claimed to have miniaturised a thermo-nuclear warhead that can fit on a ballistic missile, and the successful test of re-entry technology that would allow the warheadâ€”when carried on a long-range missileâ€”to survive atmospheric re-entry.
Experts say the claims are likely a mix of fact and exaggeration. However, there is a consensus that North Korea has made strong and steady progress towards its goal of developing an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can accurately deliver a nuclear bomb as far as the continental United States.
â€œWe view this as North Koreaâ€™s attempt to showcase its progress in nuclear and missile developments domestically and internationally,â€ said South Korean defence ministry spokesman Moon Sang-Gyun.
On Wednesday, Pyongyang had focused its ire on South Koreaâ€™s Park, saying its artillery units stood ready to turn her office into a â€œsea of flames and ashesâ€. The presidential Blue House in Seoul responded on Thursday, condemning what it described as â€œa direct provocation to our nation as well as the presidentâ€.