North Korea has completed the development of a large-caliber multiple launch rocket system and is likely to deploy it against South Korea starting late this year, Seoul's defense minister here said.
North Korea announced last month that its leader Kim Jong-un inspected what was claimed to be the final test-fire of the 300-millimeter caliber rockets equipped with an accurate guidance system.
The completion of the new weapon has drawn attention to North Korea's escalating artillery threats to South Korea, especially along the inter-Korean border region and the capital city of Seoul.
With a range of around 200 kilometers, the latest MLRS roughly puts half of South Korea within its range.
South Korea "has been closely following (the development) of the 300-mm MLRS for three years," Defense Ministry Han Min-koo said in an interview with local journalists.
"Recently, North Korea test-fired the system several times, through which, I believe, it has nearly completed the development,"
Han said, referring to the North's multiple MLRS launches carried out in March.
"Under this assessment, I think North Korea will deploy the 300-mm MLRS as early as at the end of this year," according to the minister.
Accurate MLRS weapons are a cheaper alternative to North Korea's arsenal of more expensive ballistic missiles, notably its short-range Scud missiles, the ministry highlighted.
The exact accuracy and the destructive power of the weapon system needs to be studied further, but the new MLRS with extended range and guidance systems is different from previous long-range artillery munitions, he pointed out.
Still, South Korea is fully capable of defending against potential MLRS attacks because the country has consistently upgraded its counter-artillery countermeasures, according to the defense chief.
The communist country is also likely to carry out another nuclear test as the country stands technically ready to do so at any time, Han said, repeating his ministry's recent assessment.
"It is not, to be sure, a final assessment, but our observation of North Korea's nuclear test tunnels shows that a nuclear test is possible as soon as the leadership makes a decision," he said.
Han also cited the North Korean leader's recent order to conduct "a nuclear warhead test" last month as additional backup of his assessment.
In March, North Korea sharply increased its military ante against Seoul and Washington in protest against the allies' joint military exercises that run through April.
North Korea has threatened to launch strikes on the capital Seoul and the presidential house, Cheong Wa Dae, in a series of bellicose rhetoric, which also included claims that the country developed missile re-entry technology and made key strides in regards to its nuclear warheads.
The unusually virulent rhetoric indicates how seriously intimidated North Korea is by the international sanctions imposed on it after the country's nuclear and long-range missile tests in January and February, respectively, the defense chief said.
"Kim is also (using the threats) as a means of solidifying his leadership and flaunting his audacity internally," Han added. (Yonhap)