09.08.2015 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Are We Waiting for a Missile in October?

nor3oreaRecently, a number of media sources have been discussing the news that “North Korea has erected a huge launching pad to launch ballistic missiles.”

The original text of South Korean origin stated that, as the South Korean intelligence officials said, the DPRK “has almost completed modernization of the launching platform for long-range missiles… The height of the platform at the missile test site near Tonchhanni village, North Pyongan province, now stands at 67 meters. It can be used to launch missiles larger than the 30 meters long missile ‘Ynha-3’, the launch of which took place in December 2012. The provocative launch can be tied to the 70th anniversary of the Korean Workers’ Party, which is to be celebrated on October 10, 2015. There are reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has already given the relevant order, and the missile is being assembled at a factory near Pyongyang.” Evidence of the latter was allegedly discovered by South Korean spy satellites.

The South Korean newspaper, “Joong Ang Ilbo”, is escalating the situation: an unidentified source in the government reports that during the first half of 2015 the North conducted at least two tests of a new rocket engine. So, the new type of missile can fly about 10 thousand km and reach the mainland of the US. Therefore, as stated by the Minister of Defense of Korea, Han Ming Gu, it could be a “provocation at a strategic level.” And as explained by an expert on North Korea, professor at Seoul National University, Chang Yong Sok, “chances are high that North Korea is using South Korea as a victim and will move forward with any provocation that will have impact on the states surrounding the Peninsula, including the US and China.”

In fact, the northerners simply increased the already existing 50-meter platform (or rather, the so-called launch pad) by a further 17 meters. Work started in late 2013 and is almost completed now. “The new platform will allow North Korea to launch a missile twice as long as the 30-meter “Ynha-3 ” which started in 2012,” the media quoted an anonymous source in the South Korean intelligence.

As for the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, a series of celebrations, including a military parade have been planned for the occasion. Military equipment has already been pulled into the capital, which is engaged in practice drills for the upcoming parade. The timed launch is also very likely, as hinted by the Deputy Permanent Representative of the DPRK at the UN, Chang Il Hun, at a press conference in New York on July 28. According to him, the DPRK can do whatever it sees fit, not being bound by any conventions. However, he still cannot talk about specific events, while at the same time he noted that the nuclear deterrent forces give Pyongyang an opportunity to defend its sovereignty and interests against the “hostile policy” of the US.

Moreover, the possibility of launching a satellite dedicated to that event was known for a long time – at least since the spring. Even a version of the reasons for the absence of Kim Jong-un at the May celebrations in Moscow was linked to this – presumably he decided to avoid discussing sensitive topics. Although Washington argues that under the pretext of launching a satellite, the DPRK has been conducting ballistic missile tests in violation of UN resolutions that ban Pyongyang from launching any missiles which use ballistic technology, Pyongyang has a different point of view. As noted in a statement issued on June 13 by the representative of the Foreign Ministry – Washington “has a policy of double standards, recognizing the legitimacy of PPE launches everywhere except in North Korea.”

Experts recognize that the right to the peaceful exploration of outer space, including the launch of satellites, is universal for all countries, but for launching satellites into orbit virtually the same missile-boosters are used as those that launch intercontinental ballistic missiles into combat. It is believed that because of this, to segregate the early stages of the missile program into “space exploration and combat missiles” is extremely difficult, but it is not so. There is the following difference between a satellite launch and the test of a military missile: they take off perhaps in the same way, but the combat missile must hit a target in a given square, and this is the main element of the test.

And even if we consider the launch as part of the military program, there is no reason to panic either. It is enough to approach the DPRK program with the same evaluation criteria, like any other missile program – and then it becomes clear that there had only been four launches, and successful ones – even less. Indeed, North Korea is preparing the construction to launch an artificial satellite, which was called a ballistic missile launch by the anti-Pyongyang media. But when the launch happens, it will be neither news nor any particular threat. The reaction to such a launch is also possible to predict, so I shall just quote what I wrote on the same occasion three years ago:

– The response to the launch of a North Korean missile is a score in which the roles have been assigned long ago. Russia and China dutifully express a mixture of concern and displeasure: everyone has the right to the peaceful exploration of space but blatant violation of the UN resolution is certainly mauvais ton, which cannot be ignored. The Japanese authorities demonstrate nationalism, move troops and state that if there is the slightest risk that a North Korean missile lands on Japanese territory it will be immediately shot down. Representatives of the US State Department and the liberal public will talk once again about provocation and the need for tougher sanctions, or at least making them a more realistic mechanism of influence on Pyongyang. Experts of various political orientations will give their own point of views, including the author of these lines (who, as we recall, considers the text of the UN resolution invalid and proposes to replace it with another one, focused on the struggle against the military programs, and not against the things which, given a “breadth of views”, can be seen as dual purpose things). All this we have repeatedly seen and heard before (even that “new missile capable of reaching the United States” was ALSO written about three years ago), and if nothing unforeseen happens during the launch, the reaction to it will also be similar to the previous ones. This means that for some time this will be a hot topic, the UN Security Council will issue condemning statements, but it will never reach any really serious interventions. Circles on the water will calm down, and the situation will return more or less back to the previous one.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD (History), senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.