Early on the morning of April 5, the U.S. Pacific Command detected a land-based missile launch near Sinpo, North Korea. The Pacific Command initially assessed the missile as a KN-15, also known as the Pukguksong-2. Sinpo is where North Korea’s submarine program is based, and is the site of several provocative submarine-launched ballistic-missile (SLBM) tests in 2015 and 2016. Commercial satellite imagery of Sinpo Shipyard shows rapid construction and refurbishment at the facility.
If the launch is indeed a land-based KN-15, why launch it from a submarine site on the east coast? Well, images from the first test of a KN-15 in February 2017 make it look nearly identical to the KN-11—their SLBM. It is not the first time North Korea has moved an SLBM to land. The Musudan missile was based on a Soviet SLBM design. Sinpo is not only where they are building the submarines, but the missiles that go on them. North Korea is apparently very interested in growing its SLBM program—and perhaps something more.
This is a new and important technology advancement for North Korea. Once North Korea realized it had a successful solid-fuel nuclear-capable SLBM (called the KN-11 or Pukguksong), it became very valuable to them. First, SLBMs are harder for most ballistic-missile defense systems to detect. South Korea’s shiny new Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system has a 120-degree directional radar. North Korea could move a submarine behind the radar’s field of view and launch a missile, defeating the entire purpose of the system.
Second, the missile is solid-fueled, making it very useful for land-based systems. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute (and my boss), predicted North Korea would move the SLBM to a road mobile system last year. North Korea routinely moves missiles around the country on trucks to keep outsiders guessing and increase the survivability of their missiles. In between rotations, they hide their road-mobile missiles in bunkers, warehouses, caves, and highway tunnels.
North Korea has relied almost entirely on liquid-fueled missiles up until this point. North Korea’s liquid fuels and oxidizers are corrosive and cannot be stored in a missile for long periods of time. This means road-mobile missiles have to be driven around in convoys with more support vehicles. This formation makes a very noticeable signature for the human and, increasingly, computer-satellite-imagery analysts that examine trillions of pixels of military and commercial imagery of North Korea every day.
In addition, solid-fuel missiles can be launched more quickly because the fuel can be stored in the missile. Rather than taking around an hour to fuel up, North Korean units can drive solid-fueled missiles out from a tunnel, erect them and fire, shaving time off their launch process and making it harder for the U.S., South Korea, and Japan to respond.
North Korea’s first test of the KN-15 in February 2017 came from an airbase near the west coast city of Kusong. Not only did they show off their brand new missile, but a rather odd-looking transporter erector launcher (TEL) with it. Unlike most of North Korea’s TELs, which are essentially heavy-duty trucks with wheeled chassis, this vehicle looks like a tank with caterpillar treads. That’s probably because it is essentially a tank with caterpillar treads and the factory that made them isn’t too far from where the test took place. Leaked cables indicate that the U.S. and Russia have communicated about North Korea’s trouble procuring heavy-duty chassis from abroad. Their last big score was tricking Beijing into selling them six trucks, which were later converted into TELs to carry their intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
By moving away from these heavy-duty trucks and toward indigenously produced TELs, North Korea saves money, time, and aggravation. This translates into more launchers. It doesn’t matter how many missiles or warheads you have if you can’t launch them. North Korea’s new TEL can also use its caterpillar treads to go off-road more easily. This may allow for even more hiding places since most satellite imagery analysts are looking for roads that end in caves and bunkers. There isn’t a lot of information on how these new TELs move, so they may not have much range and are probably top-heavy, making it hard to go up steep grades, but it creates a headache to track them.
There are a few weird details from the initial announcements of the missile launch. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff were quoted as saying the missile flew only 60 kilometers from its origin and hit a height (or apogee) of 189km. This is both a shorter distance and apogee than the February test, which flew 500km from Kusong and hit a height of 550 km. Was it a failure? The jury is still out. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs say it is premature to conclude success or failure. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, notes that the range and apogee are typical of a much smaller missile or perhaps that the second stage failed or was a dummy.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a three-sentence statement on the launch, which did not inspire confidence. Not only is the KN-15 not an intermediate range missile, but only said: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” The entirety of his statement was only 13 more characters than one of President Trump’s tweets. Not only did Tillerson not address allies or renew U.S. commitment to the region, but it is not clear what he means. We’re done talking, prepare to die? We’re done talking, I’m going to take a nap? Just wait until we tell Xi Jinping on you?
The following days will reveal more details, and hopefully images from the test that will ultimately determine what was launched. What we should do about it is a much harder question. Xi Jinping and Trump will soon meet at Mar-a-Lago, and North Korea may even conduct another test, just as they did for Japanese Prime Minister Abe. This time I hope Trump’s national-security team does not brief Trump in front of a bunch of millionaires eating hors d’oeuvres on unsecured cellphone cameras. One can hope.