WASHINGTON -- A newly tested North Korean short-range ballistic missile appears to be a copy of an advanced Russian design that could greatly improve Pyongyang's ability to evade U.S. missile defense systems, according to U.S. officials.
President Donald Trump, who has sought unsuccessfully for the last year to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons, has dismissed the new missile as "very standard stuff." But military and national security officials see a potential threat to U.S. forces and allies in northeast Asia.
Three of the missiles were test-fired on May 4 and May 9 from northwest North Korea. They flew on a low trajectory, never exiting the Earth's atmosphere, and flew about 180 miles before plunging into the Sea of Japan.
Pictures showed the missile closely resembles a short-range Russian missile, called the Iskander, right down to the solid fuel engine and four fins on its tail for making in-flight course adjustments. The similarities are so strong that some experts dubbed Pyongyang's version "the Kimskander" after the tests.
A low-flying missile with a satellite guidance system, as the North Korean missile appears to have, is potentially far harder for U.S. anti-missile systems deployed in South Korea to intercept, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.
The weapon also could be hard to destroy on the ground because it relies on a mobile launcher that carries two missiles and can be moved. It is likely more accurate than North Korea's aging arsenal of short-range Scud missiles.
The tests appeared aimed at increasing pressure on the White House to resume negotiations that stalled after a Trump-Kim summit in February failed to make any progress on getting Kim to abandon his nuclear arsenal and weapons production facilities.
"This is a missile designed to evade" countermeasures, said a senior U.S. official familiar with assessments of the North Korean test launch. "This is their way of saying, 'We have an advanced weapons program that's continuing to do new and different things. Now let's get back to negotiating.'"
A new version of the Patriot interceptor missile defense system in South Korea could hit the missile in mid-flight. But if Pyongyang fired several at once, it could overwhelm the Patriot system, a U.S. official said.
The flattened trajectory also could make it better able to avoid the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, U.S. missile defense systems deployed in South Korea against Pyongyang's medium- and long-range missiles.