Of barks and bitesLast week, an NBC investigative news team in the United States? broadcast a major story concluding that the Musudan and Hwasong-13 missiles displayed by the North Koreans at recent military parades are not real operational missiles. Instead, their technical experts believe the missiles were mock-ups or “crude fakes” designed specifically for the purpose of a parade, but with no military use.
The primary method of reaching this finding was based on close-up photographs of the missiles on display, which revealed oddities pointed out by missile experts. For example, the missile skin near the warhead showed bumps and imperfections and not the silky smooth skin needed to reduce aerodynamic drag when the missile is traveling at top speeds. Experts pointed out that the pictures also showed no retrorockets on the missiles, which are needed to separate the stages of an ICBM in flight. They also noted that the North had used the same missile in different military displays, but changed the markings on the body to make it look like a different class of missile.
The message of the story was that, once again, the North’s bark appears worse than its bite.
We know very little about the North Korean missile program. There is a good bit of information about the Rodong ballistic missile, which is operational and deployed. The tests of the longer-range Taepodong missiles continue, the last one being in December 2012. While there have been two agreements on the North’s nuclear program in 1994 (the so-called Agreed Framework) and in 2007 (from the six-party talks), there has never been an agreement on limiting its missile program. In fact, the only time there was any sort of restriction on the program was when Pyongyang declared a short-lived testing moratorium to gain Japanese and U.S. aid. The second Bill Clinton administration got close to a deal to halt missile tests, but was unsuccessful. Since then, the missile program has grown unimpeded for well over a decade.
The missiles discussed in the NBC News report were the ones we know the least about. They have never been flight-tested, and the concern is that they represent a new class of solid-fueled, mobile long-range missiles that could be equipped with WMD warheads. Why is this more dangerous? Because a road-mobile missile is harder to target than one sitting on a platform. Moreover, if it is a solid-fueled rocket, then there is little advance warning of a shot. A liquid-fueled rocket, by contrast, will need to sit on a launch pad and be fueled for more than a day or two, which makes it vulnerable to a preemptive attack.
So, does the NBC report allow us to breathe a sigh of relief that Pyongyang is still a long way from threatening the world with these new missiles? In one sense, it takes some of the urgency out of the issue because the North still appears unable to field a long-range ICBM in the short term. But at the same time, there is little reason to relax.
First, what they cannot do right now will certainly be attainable within President Barack Obama’s and President Park Geun-hye’s terms in office. The missiles set out for testing last spring, during Kim Jong-un’s first crisis with the U.S., appear to have been the Musudan based on press reports. The fact that they were pulled back from launching because of apparent technical flaws (according to NBC News) does not nullify the fact that there is a dedicated development program that is the country’s top national priority. Technical hurdles may be challenging and pose delays, but these are only temporary. After all, North Koreans are Koreans, so if they are focused on accomplishing something, they will eventually find a way to do this, despite all of the naysayers.
Second, a story like this one poses a high-profile embarrassment for a young regime and leadership that is still seeking to cement its legitimacy. It almost dares the young Kim to prove his capabilities. Couple this with the fact that U.S.-South Korea annual military exercises have started this month, Pyongyang may feel compelled to act out as a sign of defiance, despite the fact that recent agreements have been made to restart the Kaesong industrial park and to provide humanitarian assistance from the South.
NBC News sent a team to the April 2012 satellite launch and festivities celebrating the 100th birthday of national founder Kim Il-sung. Having witnessed the spectacular failure of the Unha rocket only seconds after lift-off, the team of experts might naturally be skeptical of the North’s missile capabilities. But one should not forget that only eight months later, Pyongyang tried again, this time successfully, to put a payload vehicle into orbit. The satellite that went into space did not operate properly, but no one should discount the fact that this was a major new threshold of ICBM launch technology development crossed by the North, which they had been trying for several years to accomplish.
Finally, if the Musudans are truly fakes, then this would probably lend justification to the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” approach, which is to keep the North Koreans at arm’s length until they show a seriousness of purpose. Washington is focused now on Egypt, Russia and the new Israeli-Palestinian peace process, so it doesn’t need a North Korea crisis. Some thought the advancement of the Musudan program might put pressure on the administration to come back to the negotiating table because “strategic patience” was simply allowing the North to patiently build their nukes and missiles. So, this news reduces the urgency.
At a recent meeting involving Chinese, South Koreans, and Americans, Beijing was clearly frustrated with DPRK’s behavior. But at the same time, the Chinese message was to continue to implore Washington and Seoul to get back to talks to ratchet down any more crises. We are likely to hear this message more loudly from Beijing in the months ahead.
*The author is professor at Georgetown University and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
by Victor Cha