North Korea modified submarine missile launch photos, says U.S. official

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Photographs showing a North Korean missile launched from a submarine were manipulated by state propagandists and the country may be years away from developing such technology, analysts and a top U.S. military official said on Tuesday.

North Korea, sanctioned by the United States and United Nations for its missile and nuclear tests, said on May 9 it had successfully conducted an underwater test-fire of a submarine-launched ballistic missile which, if true, would indicate progress in its pursuit of missile-equipped submarines.

On Wednesday, North Korea warned the United States not to challenge its sovereign right to boost military deterrence and boasted of its ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads, a claim it has made before and which has been widely questioned by experts and never verified.

But North Korea is still "many years" from developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, U.S. Admiral James Winnefeld told an audience at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies in Washington on Tuesday.

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"They have not gotten as far as their clever video editors and spinmeisters would have us believe," said Winnefeld, who is vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Analysis seen by Reuters from German aerospace engineers Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker of Schmucker Technologie appeared to support Winnefeld's statement.

The Munich-based pair said photos of the launch were "strongly modified", including reflections of the missile exhaust flame in the water which did not line up with the missile itself.

North Korea, which regularly threatens to destroy the United States, had a record of offering faked proof to claim advances in missile technology, Schiller and Schmucker said, such as poorly built mockups of missiles on display at military parades in 2012 and 2013.

The pair agreed with analysis posted by experts on the websites 38north.org and armscontrolwonk.com that the missile was likely launched from a specially designed submerged barge, and not from a submarine

A photo on state television showed a missile high in the sky leaving a trail of white smoke, whereas other photos from state media showed no white smoke, suggesting the two photos were of different missiles with different propulsion systems, Schiller and Schmucker said.

South Korea stood by its position that the photos appeared authentic. "We haven't changed our stance that the rocket was fired from a submarine and flew about 150 meters out of the water," a South Korean military official said.

The North's National Defence Commission, the main ruling body headed by leader Kim Jong Un, said on Wednesday the submarine-based missile launch was "yet a higher level of accomplishment in the development of strategic attack means".

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jeremy Laurence)

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