North’s 2 new missiles not likely to be successful

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North’s 2 new missiles not likely to be successful

If North Korea were to launch the two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) purportedly detected by South Korean intelligence authorities last week, “such a test would probably fail and embarrass the regime,” a veteran aerospace engineer wrote on 38 North Saturday.

The statement was made by John Schilling, an expert on rocket and spacecraft propulsion and mission analysis, who spent most of his career as a contractor for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate, according to descriptions provided by 38 North’s official website.

Schilling’s conclusion was based on South Korean media reports last week that local intelligence authorities detected two missiles mounted atop mobile launchers in the North, a sign that the regime might test-fire an ICBM in the near future.

Citing unnamed military sources, Yonhap reported that the missiles appear to be 15 meters (49 feet) long at the most, shorter than its existing ICBMs: the 19-20 meter KN-08 and the 17-18 meter KN-14.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued a threat to that effect in his New Year’s address on Jan. 1, after which a North Korean Foreign Affairs Ministry official followed up days later on state media by asserting that Pyongyang will carry out the ICBM test “any time, any where” Kim wishes.

Whether or not the two missiles are new ICBMs is yet unknown. Seoul did not officially acknowledge any hints of a related test or device.

Among several scenarios that Schilling drew out, based on South Korea’s measurements, one was that the North would not be able to carry out an ICBM test with its current technology, an opinion echoed by scholars in the international community.

But he was quick to add that even if it did fail, it would provide Pyongyang’s engineers with “critical data going forward.”

North Korea, he said, “usually fails with their first test of a new missile, and usually figures out how to make it work in the end.”

Pyongyang has never carried out an ICBM test before, although a mockup version of the road-mobile KN-08, which is believed to be the nation’s first ICBM, was displayed in a military parade in 2012.

An upgraded version, the KN-14, was rolled out in another parade in 2015.

“North Korea probably has missiles under development that we don’t know about,” said Schilling, “but the likelihood of any such missile being ready for an imminent flight test without our first having seen signs of extensive ground testing is very low.”

But South Korea may have detected the missiles before their completion. “A KN-14 mobile ICBM without the reentry vehicle, or a KN-08 mobile ICBM without the third stage, would meet the description,” Schilling wrote, adding, “it might be done if the reentry vehicle is stored separately and the mobile launcher is the most expedient way to deliver the missile to the launch site.”

If the North is not intending to test-fire an ICBM but displayed two missiles anyway, it could either be “simply a bluff,” wrote Schilling, or mean that the country is planning to demonstrate the launching of a Rodong missile or two, showing “no new capabilities but reminding the world that they are at least a regional threat.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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