North Korea tests new type of high-thrust rocket engine

TOKYO -- North Korea has conducted a ground test of a new type of high-thrust rocket engine that leader Kim Jong Un is calling a revolutionary breakthrough for the country’s space program, the North’s state media said Sunday.

Kim attended Saturday’s test at the Sohae launch site, according to the Korean Central News Agency, which said the test was intended to confirm the “new type” of engine’s thrust power and gauge the reliability of its control system and structural safety. 

Kim called the test “a great event of historic significance” for the country’s indigenous rocket industry, the KCNA report said.

He also said the “whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries” and claimed the test marks what will be known as the “March 18 revolution” in the development of the country’s rocket industry.

The report indicated that the engine is to be used for North Korea’s space and satellite-launching program.

North Korea is banned by the United Nations from conducting long-range missile tests, but it claims its satellite program is for peaceful use, a claim many in the U.S. and elsewhere believe is questionable. 

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched the ground jet test of a Korean-style high-thrust engine newly developed by the Academy of the National Defence Science in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on March 19, 2017. 

KCNA/via Reuters

North Korean officials have said that under a five-year plan, they intend to launch more Earth observation satellites and what would be the country’s first geostationary communications satellite -- which would be a major technological advance. 

Getting that kind of satellite into place would likely require a more powerful engine than its previous ones. The North also claims it is trying to build a viable space program that would include a moon launch within the next 10 years.

The test was conducted as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in China. When Tillerson arrived in the country, he stepped into an arena where the U.S. is facing a barrage of challenges from trade to the South China Sea, but North Korea topped the agenda, CBS News correspondent Adriana Diaz reported. Tillerson has to win over China to have any hope of combating the threat from the North.

Tillerson said Sunday, on the final day of a swing through Asia that has been dominated by concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, that the U.S. is looking forward to the first meeting between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. In talks with Xi in Beijing, Tillerson said Trump places a “very high value” on communications with the Chinese president. 

Trump looks forward to “the opportunity of a visit in the future,” Tillerson said, in an apparent reference to unconfirmed reports of plans for the two leaders to meet in Florida next month. 

It’s hard to know if the latest North Korea test was timed to coincide with Tillerson’s visit, but Pyongyang has been highly critical of ongoing U.S.-South Korea wargames just south of the Demilitarized Zone and often conducts some sort of high-profile operation of its own in protest.

Earlier this month, it fired off four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, reportedly reaching within 120 miles of Japan’s shoreline.

Japan, which was Tillerson’s first stop before traveling to South Korea and China, hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

While building ever better long-range missiles and smaller nuclear warheads to pair with them, North Korea has marked a number of successes in its space program. 

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watched the ground jet test of a Korean-style high-thrust engine newly developed by the Academy of the National Defence Science in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on March 19, 2017.

KCNA/via Reuters

It launched its latest satellite -- the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Brilliant Star 4 -- into orbit on Feb. 7 last year, just one month after conducting what it claims was its first hydrogen-bomb test.   

It put its first satellite in orbit in 2012, a feat few other countries have achieved. In 2013, rival South Korea launched a satellite into space from its own soil for the first time, though it needed Russian help to build the rocket’s first stage.