A suspected Musudan missile is launched in this undated photo from the Korean Central New Agency.

A suspected Musudan missile is launched in this undated photo from the Korean Central New Agency. (Courtesy of KCNA)

North Korea is on track to perfect its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile — capable of reaching U.S. bases in Japan and Guam — much earlier than expected, a Washington-based think tank says.

An aggressive schedule that has seen multiple tests, coupled with the communist nation carrying out launches near Kusong on its west coast, suggest the missiles could enter service as early as next year, says an analysis published Monday by 38 North, a website run by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies that monitors North Korean activities.

“The North Koreans aren’t simply repeating old failures,” the analysis said. “And they aren’t taking the slow path to developing a reliable system, with a year or so between each test to analyze the data and make improvements … instead, they are continuing with an aggressive test schedule that involves, at least this time, demonstrating new operational capabilities.”

North Korea successfully launched a Musudan missile earlier this year that reached an altitude of about 620 miles before crashing into the sea. That followed several failed attempts.

Such frequent launches increase the probability of failures, but “it means they will learn more with each test,” the think tank said.

A noteworthy difference between Saturday’s failure and previous tests is the location. In the past, the missiles were launched from sites around the North’s Musudan-ri test facility on the northeast coast, where 38 North says the country keeps its Musudan engineers and technicians.

“Moving to a roadside near Kusong is like taking the training wheels off the bicycle, seeing if you really have mastered something new,” the analysis said.

Launching from the west coast allows the North to achieve a longer range without flying over neighboring countries, 38 North said. Past tests from the east coast were “limited to 400 kilometers (250 miles) or so” to avoid Japanese airspace. To compensate, the North used a lofted trajectory, which “probably did not demonstrate the missile’s full performance.”

“From the west coast, launching south, a North Korean missile could fly 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) or more before splashing down in the Philippine Sea,” the analysis said.

Security could also explain why Saturday’s launch was moved out west.

“Kusong is home to several secure military sites in the province of Pyongyang, the most heavily guarded territory and airspace in North Korea,” 38 North said. “It is as close to the Musudan’s likely targets as North Korea can get while still remaining safely north of the DMZ.”

The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the latest launch, calling it a “grave violation” of resolutions banning North Korea from using ballistic missile technology.

“Such activities contribute to [North Korea’s] development of nuclear weapons delivery systems and increase tension,” Monday’s statement said.

It also urged member countries to “redouble their efforts” to enforce sanctions and other measures against the North.

The United States and its allies are working on a new Security Council resolution aimed at punishing the North for its Sept. 9 nuclear test, which was its fifth overall and second this year. Twitter: @kiddaaron

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