Photos showing a North Korean missile launched from a submarine were manipulated by state propagandists, and the isolated country may still be years away from developing the technology, analysts and a senior U.S. Navy admiral said on Tuesday.
North Korea, heavily 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 (SLBM) which, if true, would indicate progress in its pursuit of building missile-equipped submarines.
But Pyongyang was still "many years" from developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Admiral James Winnefeld told an audience at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on Tuesday.
Analysis seen by Reuters from German aerospace engineers Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker of Schmucker Technologie supported 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 track record of offering faked proof to claim significant advances in missile technology, Schiller and Schmucker said, such as poorly built mockups of missiles on display at military parades in 2012 and 2013.
"Considering the track record of North Korean deceptions, it seems sensible to assume that any North Korean SLBM capability is still a very long time in the future, if it will ever surface," Schiller and Schmucker said.
The pair also 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 TV 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.
"They have not gotten as far as their clever video editors and spinmeisters would have us believe," Winnefeld said.
South Korean military officials said after the launch that photos showing the missile appeared to be authentic.
"We haven't changed our stance that the rocket was fired from a submarine and flew about 150 metres out of the water," a South Korean military official said, when asked to comment on Winnefeld's remarks.
"As we have previously said, the photos don't appear to have been manipulated."