South Korea says North's recent test was of rocket engine

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea's defense minister said Tuesday that North Korea's recent unspecified test at a rocket liftoff site was of a rocket engine, amid speculation the North was making preliminary steps toward a prohibited long-range rocket launch.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said during a visit to Sydney that Seoul expressed its “deep concerns” over the engine test and North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches into the sea, according to his office in Seoul.

It was the first official outside assessment of what North Korea called “a very important test” at its Tongchang-ri rocket launch site. The North’s Academy of National Defense Science said Sunday the test will have “an important effect on changing the strategic position” of North Korea.

Jeong didn’t elaborate on what the engine test was for but urged North Korea to stop “acts that escalate military tensions."

Many experts say the reported test indicates North Korea is preparing to launch a satellite-carrying rocket in a disguised test of long-range missile technology amid faltering U.S.-led diplomacy on ending the North Korean nuclear crisis.

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Inside Panmunjom, the truce village separating North and South Korea
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Inside Panmunjom, the truce village separating North and South Korea
South Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 11: A North Korean soldier stands guard at the border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on April 11, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet for the first time on April 27, 2018 in the Peace House, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
South Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 11: North Korean military check point is seen from an observation post on April 11, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet for the first time on April 27, 2018 in the Peace House, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
South Korean soldiers stand guard in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea February 7, 2018. Picture taken on February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Josh Smith
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 11: A North Korean national flag in North Korea's propaganda village of Gijungdong is seen from an observation post on April 11, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet for the first time on April 27, 2018 in the Peace House, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
A South Korean soldier stands guard at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
A North Korean soldier is seen through a door on the North side of the border truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas on April 11, 2018. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are due to meet on April 27 at the South's side of the demilitarized zone for the landmark inter-Korean summit. / AFP PHOTO / Jung Yeon-je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A South Korean soldier stands guard at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
South Korean soldiers work on a barricade on the Grand Unification Bridge which leads to the truce village Panmunjom, just south of the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
South Korean soldiers stand guard in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, February 7, 2018. Picture taken on February 7, 2018. REUTERS/Josh Smith
The general view shows a North Korean village near the truce village of Panmunjom, seen from within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea on February 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korean soldiers walk beside the road leading to the North Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjom, seen from within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea on February 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
This general view shows a North Korean miltary post on the road to the truce village of Panmunjom, seen from within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea on February 21, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
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The diplomacy has been stalemated for months, with North Korea pressing the United States to make concessions by year's end. North Korea has hinted at abandoning diplomacy and resuming nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, if the U.S. fails to meet that deadline.

Experts say North Korea will likely opt for a satellite liftoff, instead of an ICBM launch, because it can repeat its argument that it has a sovereign right to a peaceful space development and draw support from China and Russia. Also, President Donald Trump has touted the North’s moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests as his major foreign policy achievement.

In past months, North Korea launched a slew of short-range missiles and other weapons off its east coast into the sea. South Korea and parts of Japan would be within the range of those weapons, which don't pose a direct threat to the mainland U.S.

Analysts say ballistic missiles and rockets used in satellite launches share similar bodies, engines and other technology. They say each of the North's past satellite launches was believed to have improved its missile technology.

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