US defense officials say North Korea conducted yet another ballistic missile engine test last week amid rising tensions over the country’s nuclear weapons program.
The test, reportedly carried out Friday, was the third of its type in the last several weeks.
One of the officials, who spoke to CNN, said preliminary analysis indicated the engine technology could potentially be used in an intercontinental ballistic missile.
It was unclear, the official also noted, if the engine would need to be altered to work with such a missile, or if it would work with an ICBM at all.
The test came just days before new reports indicating North Korea may be in “the final stages of preparations for a sixth nuclear test.”
As reported by Washington-based think tank “38 North” Tuesday, satellite images taken this weekend of the country’s main nuclear test site show “the continued presence of three to four vehicles or equipment trailers at the entrance to the North Portal.”
“The texture of the ground from the portal entrance past the vehicles or equipment trailers suggests that communications cables may have been laid on the ground,” the report states. “This equipment would likely be used to initiate the test, collect data from the explosion and process the data.”
38 North concludes that the combination of factors “strongly suggests that test preparations are well underway,” though the images do not point to “any definitive evidence of either a nuclear device or the timing of a test.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said earlier this month that a test had been conducted of a new high-thrust engine – an event labeled as “a new birth” for Pyongyang’s rocket industry.
If the country is able to develop a nuclear-capable ICBM, the Hermit Kingdom would become a direct threat to the United States, which lies 5,500 miles away.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience” had ended, noting that military options were now on the table.
“Certainly, we do not want things to get to a military conflict… but obviously, if North Korea takes actions that threatens the South Korean forces or our own forces, then that would be met with an appropriate response,” Tillerson said. “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe that requires action, that option is on the table.”
The Trump administration remains in the process of weighing its options, which even includes a recently revealed Obama-era digital sabotage program aimed at North Korea’s missile program.