SEOUL—North Korea described two recent missile launches, which soared higher than the International Space Station, as satellite tests. The U.S. and South Korea, taking the rare step of declassifying military intelligence last week, said the activity was part of a buildup toward a full-length intercontinental ballistic missile launch.
Both could be right, given how technologies for satellites and ICBMs overlap, weapons experts say.
Kim Jong Un
regime, which currently has no space-based surveillance tools, covets military satellites that can spy on its enemies. North Korea has previously been accused of using the development of space technology as a guise for weapons development, and Mr. Kim has made no secret about his desire to develop a more powerful ICBM.
The U.S. and South Korea last week issued a warning that the Kim regime’s two most-recent launches had tested components of a new ICBM system. In the future, Pyongyang could try cloaking a full-range ICBM launch as a satellite test, Washington and Seoul said.
The suspected deception would bring some advantage to Pyongyang. By casting it as normal behavior pursuing satellite technology, the Kim regime could potentially gain early insights into how a brand-new ICBM system performs without the risk of drawing international blowback—especially from its main allies in China and Russia.
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It is a different world today. But North Korea’s nuclear tests or ICBM launches in the past were deemed major enough provocations by Beijing and Moscow that they agreed to extra sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.
The joint Washington-Seoul disclosures, however, aren’t likely to dissuade the North, security experts say.
Mr. Kim recently toured the country’s satellite-launch facility and vowed that further tests were coming. Another launch could occur as early as this week, South Korean media reported on Monday, citing Washington and Seoul assessments.
“Nothing we say or do is going to affect Pyongyang’s game plan,” said Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official who follows Korean affairs at the Brookings Institution. “The most important thing to do now is to ramp up the diplomatic, economic, and military pressure and ensure that North Korea pays a major price for its actions.”
Pyongyang has unleashed nine weapons tests this year alone, including the self-described satellite efforts. It has threatened a return to major provocations and appears to have begun restoring its main nuclear-test site, Seoul’s military says, a facility that the North had demolished four years ago as a goodwill gesture for denuclearization.
North Korea hasn’t launched a full-length ICBM or conducted a nuclear test in more than four years.
The joint Seoul-Washington ICBM disclosure came just hours after South Korea elected a new conservative president,
who promises to take a harder line on the Kim regime’s weapons tests and human-rights violations. Under left-leaning President
whose five-year term ends in May, Seoul has given priority to engagement with Pyongyang and been hesitant to refer to the Kim regime’s missile tests as provocations.
Mr. Yoon’s victory means South Korea will align more with the Biden administration’s approach to North Korea disarmament, one that leaves open the door to diplomacy but also wields a firmer hand around Pyongyang’s misbehavior and seeks greater coordination with Japan, said Kim Young-jun, a professor at the Korea National Defense University in Seoul.
“Releasing this kind of ICBM information helps build the perception that North Korea is a bad guy,” said Mr. Kim, who advises the South Korean government on national security issues. “The Biden administration may recognize that with Yoon as president it is time to draw the line, with North Korea on the enemy side, not as a partner for negotiation.”
Top nuclear envoys for the U.S., South Korea and Japan spoke by phone Monday about the Kim regime’s ICBM-related tests. Sung Kim, the Biden administration’s special representative for North Korea, emphasized that the U.S. “will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and our allies,” according to a State Department spokesman.
North Korea’s official state media has yet to respond to the ICBM assessment. But one of the Kim regime’s propaganda mouthpieces on Sunday blasted South Korea for going into a “paranoiac convulsion.” Many countries launch military satellites, said Uriminzokkiri, a Pyongyang state-run website that releases propaganda targeting South Koreans.
“A crazy dog sees everything as a switch,” Uriminzokkiri said.
Pyongyang’s prior satellite launches were condemned by the U.N. Security Council, which saw them as ballistic-missile tests that helped improve the country’s nuclear program.
In a recent visit to North Korea’s Sohae satellite-launch station, Mr. Kim urged for upgrades to accommodate “large carrier rockets,” including expanding the test site for ground engines and adding extra fueling facilities, according to state media. Sohae should become “a starting line for space conquest for the future,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying.
Both a satellite blasted into space or a weapon roaring halfway around the world need similarly powerful engines and bodies, weapons experts say. The controls used to point a camera at the Earth are close in nature to those required to aim multiple warheads on an ICBM, they say.
Forgoing imagery that is often aimed at boosting domestic morale, North Korea didn’t publish launch photos from the tests, which occurred on Feb. 27 and March 5 local time. They each reached altitudes of around 350 miles—or a fraction of the 2,800 miles flown by the Hwasong-15 ICBM that the North launched more than four years ago.
Even so, with a partial test Pyongyang can confirm capabilities or gather data should it be using the new ICBM system—a gradual approach it had taken before with previous generations of missiles, like with the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14, said Scott LaFoy, a ballistic-missile and nuclear-weapons specialist at Exiger Federal Solutions, a risk-management firm.
“Longer is much harder, and more can go wrong,” Mr. LaFoy said. “Especially when a weapon is new, baby steps are important.”
The North’s new ICBM, the Hwasong-17, was first unveiled at an October 2020 military parade. Rolling through downtown Pyongyang, the mammoth-size missile was the largest of its kind ever seen in the world, weapons experts believe. It may be sizable enough to fit five warheads inside, they say. It made a second public appearance at a defense expo attended by Mr. Kim last year.
Both a military satellite and a more menacing ICBM were mentioned in a speech Mr. Kim delivered just over a year ago that detailed the country’s five-year strategic weapons policy.
The 38-year-old dictator promised “precise reconnaissance” with the satellite. He wanted the country’s next ICBM to surpass the Hwasong-15, which has an estimated range of 8,100 miles, and has shown a potential to hit anywhere in the U.S. after the 2017 launch. The next-generation version should travel more than 1,200 miles farther and be able to carry multiple warheads, Mr. Kim said.
Other pursuits on Mr. Kim’s weapons list, such as hypersonic technology and submarine-launched missiles, have already been tested in recent months.
“The element of surprise is occasionally useful, but what we’ve got with North Korea is really a case of Chekhov’s gun,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We’re now likely entering the act where that ICBM, the proverbial ‘gun,’ goes off.”
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