North Korea May Be Able to Build Own Missile Launchers

A commercial satellite image taken in September 2011 shows what indepdendent experts believe is one of the facilities used by North Korea to assemble the road-mobile, missile-launch platforms used for its mysterious KN-08 strategic missile.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
Feb. 3, 2014, 9 a.m.

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.”

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