North Korea has developed a large-caliber multiple launch rocket system and could use it to strike South Korea as soon as this year, the South’s defence minister said on Wednesday. This comes a day after South Korean officials said they believed that the North was now able to mount a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile, and after China sharply curtailed trade with its dependent neighbour. Tensions have been running high in the region since North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test at the beginning of January then followed it up with a long-range missile launch. Current joint US-South Korean military exercises and a looming Workers’ Party Congress in North Korea both have added fuel to the fire. I think North Korea will deploy the 300mm MLRS as early as the end of this year Han Min-koo, South Korea’s defence minister Han Min-koo, South Korea’s defence minister, said that North Korea’s recent test-firings of 300mm rockets suggested that it had almost completed the development of its multiple launch rocket system. “Under this assessment, I think North Korea will deploy the 300mm MLRS as early as the end of this year,” Han told local reporters. The rockets, which are much cheaper than missiles, are thought to have a range of about 125 miles. Greater Seoul, with a population of almost 26 million people, is just 35 miles from the demilitarised zone that separates North and South Korea. North Korea recently threatened to “scorch” South Korea’s president’s offices with its “powerful large-calibre multiple-rocket-launching systems.” Pyongyang has boasted of numerous improvements in its missile and rocket programme in recent months, saying that it had road-mobile multiple rocket launchers, which it could deploy quickly and without detection, and that it had tested a solid-fuel rocket engine, another major advance. Its claims have not been independently verified, but Pyongyang is known to be working on its delivery systems. Separately, the South Korean government said that it believed North Korea had made significant progress towards its goal of miniaturising a nuclear warhead so it can be mounted on a medium-range Rodong missile. “We believe they have the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a Rodong. Whether they will fire it like that is a political decision,” an unnamed official told reporters in Seoul. The remarks were confirmed as correct by a government spokeswoman. The Rodong missile could fire a one-ton warhead as much as 1,250 miles, the official said, putting all of South Korea and most of Japan within range. North Korea’s state media last month released photos of Kim with what it said was a miniaturised nuclear warhead, but this has not been verified either. Pyongyang has proved it is developing both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, but it has not yet been shown that it can put the two together. However, many scientists and American military officials say it is just a matter of time until North Korea masters this technology. We believe they have the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on a Rodong. Whether they will fire it like that is a political decision Unnamed official Still, the timing of Seoul’s pronouncements is notable. South Korea is holding general elections next week, and such warnings could help President Park Geun-hye’s conservative ruling party in the polls. It currently controls more than half the seats in the National Assembly. But in another sign that the international community is cracking down on North Korea over its recent provocations, China this week announced it would ban imports of coal, iron ore, gold, rare earths and several other minerals from North Korea if they were related to its nuclear or missile programmes. Several North Korean mining companies have been accused of channelling funds directly to weapons programmes. The Ministry of Commerce also said China would no longer allow aviation fuel to be exported to North Korea, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. China, which is North Korea’s closest ally and shares a long border with the irascible state, has signed up for tough new sanctions against North Korea following its nuclear and missile tests. There remains a considerable amount of scepticism about how far China will go in enforcing the sanctions – its big-picture strategic interest is in keeping North Korea stable. But American officials say they have been encouraged by Beijing’s willingness to support tough multilateral action and are hopeful that China will use its leverage over North Korea.