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N. Korea ICBM engine tests stoke nuclear fears

SEOUL -- North Korea has been testing engines for an inter-continental ballistic missile, a U.S. think tank said Friday, as Pyongyang announced a top military reshuffle that coincided with signs of a looming nuclear test.

The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said satellite images of the North's Sohae rocket launch site suggested one “and maybe more” recent tests on the engine of what is probably the first stage of a road-mobile ICBM called the KN-08.

It was the latest in a series of similar tests — dating back to mid-2013 — on a missile with a targeted range of up to 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles), the institute said on its closely followed website, 38 North.

“The next technically logical step ... would be a flight test of the entire system,” it said.

The successful test of an ICBM capable of reaching the continental United States would take the nuclear threat posed by the North to an entirely new level.

Experts believe three nuclear tests have brought the North closer to mastering the miniaturization techniques required to place a nuclear warhead on a missile.

And there are signs it is preparing a fourth test, with multiple analyses of recent satellite images all noting stepped-up activity at the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

“All these activities are consistent with the view that a (nuclear) test or tests will occur soon,” the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in its latest assessment on Friday.

Missile delivery has often been cited as the main weakness of the North's nuclear weapons program.

It has yet to test its medium-range Musudan missile with a range of up to 4,000 kilometers, let alone an ICBM.

In December 2012, it put a satellite in orbit with a rocket launch that was widely condemned as a disguised ballistic missile test.

That launch marked a significant step forward, but the rocket lacked the re-entry capability required of a functioning ICBM.

Models of the road-mobile KN-08 missile were displayed in North Korean military parades in 2012 and in July last year.

But several analysts ridiculed what they saw as crude mock-ups, with at least one respected aerospace engineer labeling them technically preposterous and a “big hoax.”

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