How N. Korea may use the Pacific to hone its missiles

STORY: If North Korea follows through on its threat to turn the Pacific Ocean into a "firing range," it could see the nuclear-armed state make critical technical advances.

That’s according to analysts, after the powerful sister of leader Kim Jong Un threatened on Monday to push Pyongyang’s missile testing further than its usual target, the Sea of Japan.

Kim Yo Jong said the "firing range" threat depended on the behavior of U.S. forces.

It’s the North Korean leadership’s first direct, offensive reference to the Pacific, coming amid another series of test launches, including of its massive Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile.

So far, the North has fired three intermediate range variants past Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

Shin Seung-ki, a Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, noted that the last one, in October, flew a record distance for any North Korean missile.

"If they tested the maximum range of intermediate-range ballistic missile last year, we could expect them to continue testing the maximum range of intercontinental ballistic missiles this year."

With ICBMs, North Korea has only launched them on a lofted trajectory.

That is, sent them high into space, rather than on the lower and longer flight paths that they would follow in real use.

Shin said testing in the Pacific will allow Pyongyang to check whether its ICBMs can stably re-enter the fiery atmosphere at a normal angle.

“If that technology is successfully implemented through the test, they will be able to attack the U.S. mainland, which is the purpose of their ICBMs.”

Yoji Koda, a former admiral with Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force, said Pyongyang will likely continue testing a range of missiles for two conditions that would serve to deter Washington.

One is to demonstrate a “real” firing range, of more than 8,000 miles.

“Second condition is coming seventh or eighth or maybe the one after that would be smaller but much larger capacity of the destruction. So, if those two conditions are really met, that is the time when the North Korea really has the real deterrence capability against the United States.”

On Wednesday, South Korean lawmakers also said the North could test-fire ICBMs on a lower, longer trajectory and conduct its seventh nuclear test this year.

The lawmakers cited intelligence officials as saying the move would be aimed at putting pressure on the U.S., coming as the country stages joint navy drills with South Korea and Japan in waters between the Asian neighbors.