North Korea appears to have developed some domestic capability to build mobile missile launchers, according to independent researchers.
"North Korea has a partially indigenous infrastructure to make their own launchers," says Jeffrey Lewis, lead author of a new report on the matter published by the Korea-specialist website "38 North."
Pyongyang unveiled road-mobile platforms for launching its mysterious KN-08 strategic missile at an April 2012 military parade. The firing platforms were an immediate cause of international consternation about a possible technology transfer from China, because the vehicles looked similar to a transporter-erector-launcher utilized by Beijing's strategic missile corps.
A North Korean capability to launch strategic missiles from the road is a serious concern for the United States, as such weapons are more difficult to find and eliminate through potential air, drone or missile strikes.
While the KN-08 missile is a subject of pressing interest in the U.S. military, independent analysts caution against getting too worried about the weapon until it has been flight-tested -- something for which Pyongyang appears to be preparing.
Chinese officials have acknowledged selling North Korea six vehicle chassis -- what ultimately became the launchers' supporting frame structure -- but insisted they believed the heavy-duty transport equipment would be used for logging work.
"Although the chassis export appeared to violate sanctions on North Korea and Chinese domestic law, the Chinese showed evidence that the North Koreans had provided the name of a false end-user for the vehicles," reads the 38 North report, posted on Monday.
Beijing told investigators dispatched by the U.N. Security Council that Pyongyang had added the transporter-erector-launchers and other equipment to the chassis.
To test the feasibility of the Chinese claims, Lewis and his co-authors, Melissa Hanham and Amber Lee -- all with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies -- gathered and analyzed open-source images and North Korean regime-released video footage.
They created a computerized three-dimensional model of the exterior of the North Korean facility used for completing assembly on transporter-erector-launchers, known as "TELs" for short.
"Although it is hard to believe that the Chinese were not aware that North Korea would use the vehicle chassis for its illicit missile program, available evidence suggests that Pyongyang did indeed add the erectors at facilities known to assemble missile TELs," the report states.
By pouring over commercial satellite images and parsing written accounts from North Korean defectors, the researchers were able to identify two North Korean facilities of the correct physical dimensions and characteristics to accommodate the assembly of the KN-08 missile launch platforms.
"While much remains unknown about North Korea’s infrastructure for producing ballistic missiles and launchers, a persistent analyst can identify the primary facilities for ballistic missile TEL assembly," according to the report posted by 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University.
Lewis, who directs his center's East Asia Nonproliferation Program, said the investigation shows just how much can be accomplished using publicly available information and a good computer.
"It wasn't so long ago that this would have been excellent work for an intelligence agency," he told Global Security Newswire via email. Lewis extolled "the things you can do with a decent laptop and an Internet connection."
He added: "We are just starting to scratch the surface of how analysts can use open source information to monitor foreign nuclear programs, particularly integrating modeling tools, satellite images and social media."
This article was published in Global Security Newswire, which is produced independently by National Journal Group under contract with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group working to reduce global threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.