Did North Korea test a short-range ballistic missile over the weekend?
Experts say it’s clear the answer is yes, despite South Korea’s refusal to confirm any more than the firing of “several short-range projectiles” including a “new type of tactical guided weapon.”
The defense ministry in Seoul has expressed concern about Saturday’s launch and urged Pyongyang to halt acts that escalate military tensions on the divided peninsula.
But military authorities played down the possibility that it was a short-range ballistic missile, despite North Korean photographs and a lucky image captured by a San Francisco-based commercial satellite company that experts say clearly show it was.
“Technically all missiles are projectiles, but this absolutely was a short-range ballistic missile,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, Calif.
North Korea insisted Wednesday that it was a “routine and self-defensive military drill” aimed at checking the operating ability of the weapons, according to the state-run news agency.
Camp Humphreys in range
Lewis said preliminary modeling showed the missile was about 3 feet in diameter with a range of up to 280 miles, which could give it the potential to carry a 1,100-pound warhead to the main U.S. military base in South Korea, although that capability has not been confirmed.
“We don’t have a lot of performance data about it,” he said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “But if the missile performs like a missile of that size and shape should, it is capable of putting a nuclear weapon on Camp Humphreys from North Korea.”
Some 28,500 U.S. servicemembers are stationed in the South, which remains technically at war with the North after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
The semantics matter because a ballistic missile of any size would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, which ban the technology and include economic sanctions aimed at halting the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The firing of a short-range missile would not, however, violate a self-imposed moratorium in which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un promised not to conduct nuclear or long-range missile tests as part of disarmament talks.
The North Koreans also fired 240 mm and 300 mm multiple rocket launchers into the sea on Saturday, officials said. The North’s Korean Central News Agency reported the same.
But weapons tests often are designed to deliver a political message as well, and Saturday’s launch was seen as a warning that the North’s patience is wearing thin amid stalled nuclear talks with the United States.
Seoul has been caught in the middle between its longtime ally the United States and its desire to maintain the calm that has come with a diplomatic offensive after a series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests in 2016-17 raised fears of a new war.
South Korea’s defense ministry told the National Assembly on Tuesday that it did not see the launch as provocative and there was a high possibility the projectiles weren’t missiles based on flying distances, the Yonhap News Agency quoted a lawmaker as saying.
The South Koreans are likely “just trying to preserve this notion that North Korea has not been overly provocative,” said Michael Elleman, director of non-proliferation and nuclear policy at the Washington, D.C.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I think that’s a false argument and I also worry that if this particular system has the characteristics of the Iskander it presents some real strategic challenges that will test missile defenses,” he added.
He and others said the missile appeared to be similar to a Russian model known as an Iskander and was likely in early developmental stages.
“I suspect that it was either an Iskander or a clone of the Iskander that the North Koreans have somehow built,” he said. “But the fact that they haven’t really tested it and there’s no other development activity associated with this particular missile, it wouldn’t be very accurate yet.”
The satellite image captured by Planet Labs showed a thick, smoky plume of exhaust at 10:54 a.m. Saturday coming from the Hodo peninsula, which is near the east coast city of Wonsan.
Photos released by the North Koreans also showed a single missile being fired from a truck as Kim looked on through binoculars.
“It’s pretty hard to fake the contrail in the satellite imagery,” said Melissa Hanham, a nonproliferation expert at the One Earth Future Foundation’s Datayo Project.
The U.S. administration also played down the threat, with President Donald Trump tweeting that Kim “knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later noted the launch did not cross any international boundaries.
“They landed in the water east of North Korea and didn’t present a threat to the United States or to South Korea or Japan,” he said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program. “And we know that they were relatively short-range.”
Lewis said the U.S. administration’s response likely would be seen in Pyongyang as a green light to conduct similar, low-level tests.
“There’s not going to be any consequence for this so I would presume that if you were Kim and you felt that you had a particular need to test these systems, then you kind of have a permission slip to do it,” he added.
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