North’s ability for surprise launches evolving

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North’s ability for surprise launches evolving


North Korea’s state-run Korea Central TV has reported mobile launchers on Aug. 7 (far left), on Aug. 3 (second from left), on July 26 (third from left) and on March 22, 2016 (far right). Experts analyze that mobile launching vehicles have been evolving. [YONHAP]

Photographs from North Korea’s weapons tests over the past year suggest the regime’s capacity to carry out surprise launches is evolving.

The North’s latest test Tuesday displayed the usual characteristics of the country’s missile launches - performed in the early hours of the morning, without any prior warning. Yet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watched the most recent launch, as well as two others last week, from inside a previously unseen vehicle, that appears to be a small bus or a van specifically outfitted to observe tests from a safe distance.

With four separate monitor displays apparently showing information about the launches, a seated Kim and four senior officials witnessed Wednesday and Friday’s tests of what state media said was a new type of rocket artillery through a side window inside this new mobile observation post.

The decision by the regime’s propaganda machine, which fine tunes every image of its leader, to show Kim overseeing tests of the country’s newest weapons in an enclosed space is unusual. In previous instances, including most of the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches in 2017 and two short range ballistic missile launches on July 25, Kim was portrayed as “guiding” the launches at an external site, often only sheltered by a makeshift tent.

Excluding the possibility that Kim may just have wanted a more comfortable perch from which to observe his newest arsenal in action, analysts say his new mobile observatory may be designed to deter the prying eyes of foreign intelligence on the North’s military activities. Pyongyang’s preference to conduct missile tests during early morning hours is also believed to have the purpose of catching adversaries off guard with surprise maneuvers.

The projectiles in question from the last few launches, whether they are ballistic missiles or rocket artillery, were fired from transporter erector launchers (TEL), which are hard to detect through satellite surveillance. The missiles from Tuesday’s test, which appeared similar to the Russian-made Iskander, were launched from TELs that looked similar to those displayed by Pyongyang in a military parade in February. The launch pads or vehicles from last week’s tests were pixelated in footage released by state media, but analysts say the TELs looked similar to those used to fire Scud missiles.

Equipped with the enhanced mobility of these launchers and his new mobile observatory, Kim is expected to carry out even more weapons tests in the coming months.

Effectively encouraging this behavior are the actions of U.S. President Donald Trump. Although he acknowledged Pyongyang’s last two tests from last week involved short range missiles, Trump also insisted that the North’s actions did not go against his pledges with Kim.

“These missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there discussion of short range missiles when we shook hands,” Trump wrote on Twitter last Friday. “There may be a United Nations violation, but Chairman Kim does not want to disappoint me with a violation of trust, there is far too much for North Korea to gain - the potential as a Country, under Kim Jong Un’s leadership, is unlimited.”

Also last Friday, the U.S. president pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) that Washington had signed with the former Soviet Union in 1987, which banned missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers (310 and 3,400 miles). While the motive behind Trump’s termination of the treaty was Russia’s alleged noncompliance, the implications of Washington’s withdrawal have raised concerns among observers that the arms control architecture set up after the Cold War is effectively becoming obsolete, paving the way for countries like North Korea to openly possess a nuclear missile arsenal.

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