No sooner had we reported on the weapons test that took place in North Korea on 4 May, than the DPRK fired more short-range missiles (of unknown make) on 9 May 2019. One of them flew 420 kilometers, while the other 270 kilometers. Both of the missiles reached their peak altitude of 50 km and then fell into the Sea of Japan / the East Sea. The next day, North Korea’s media outlets reported that the missile launches were part of staged military drills.
As the previous time, Kim Jong-un attended the exercise.
The region of Kusong in the North Pyongan province, where the drills were staged, is fairly well-known. In February 2017, this place was used to launch the medium-range ballistic missile Pukkuksong-2. And in May and July 2017, Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 missiles were fired in this region.
Experts believe that North Koreans tested short-range missiles (of ground-to-ground type), which are DPRK’s equivalents of Russia’s Iskander missiles. On 4 May, they were launched over a shorter distance (than the norm), and on 9 May, the North tested the missiles over their actual range to assess their stability.
Since performance characteristics of DPRK’s missiles have been compared to those of Russia’s Iskanders, South Korean experts believe that the former have a maximum range of 500 km. In other words, they can reach all parts of the ROK, for example, the range of the missile launched on 4 May of 270 km means that it can hit Seoul, while that of 420 km shows that the rocket can strike the sizable military headquarters, the Gyeryongdae complex in the province of Chungcheongnam-do in the south of the country. In addition, the altitude of 50 km, which the rocket flew at, is higher than that of South Korea’s surface-to-air missile systems, Patriot, of 40 km. In other words, it will be difficult for them to intercept and destroy the previously mentioned weapons. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) systems are designed to target ballistic missiles, but Iskander rockets follow non-ballistic flight paths. They reach maximum altitude very quickly, and then follow a flattened trajectory until they strike the target. In other words, at present, the ROK does not have the means of ensuring such weapons will always be intercepted and destroyed.
Aside from the missiles, mobile rocket launchers also generated interest. On 4 May, launchers on wheels were deployed, while on 9 May, equivalents mounted on caterpillar tracks were used. The latter are perfectly suitable for operations in difficult conditions, for instance, in mountainous terrain. This decisively puts those South Korean (and not only) strategists in their place, who banked on current ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems to be able to successfully intercept missiles launched by their opponents.
Perhaps, the burgeoning frenzy on the topic of whether these “Kimskanders” could be classified as ballistic rockets stems from these latest developments. According to the UN Security Council Resolution 1874, North Korea is prohibited from firing any types of ballistic missiles and violations of this ban could have a negative impact on the ongoing dialogue with the North. If official statements saying that the DPRK conducted missile tests (even if the rockets used were short-range) are made, they may serve as a motive for an escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
In the opinion of ROK military personnel, photographs published by North Korean media outlets indicate that modernized versions of Russian rockets were launched, but other experts believe that there is not enough information to draw such definitive conclusions. The South Korean intelligence service concedes that the missiles may be a new type of weaponry, but they have not finished their analysis of data as yet.
In his comments about the missile launch on 9 May, Donald Trump highlighted that Washington is closely following the situation in the DPRK, and confirmed that short-range rockets were tested. The U.S. President once again reminded his audience that North Korea offers numerous economic opportunities that its leader does not wish to see wasted. The U.S. leader expressed similar views about the previous military drills, which had been conducted on 4 May.
During his appearance in a special program, called Ask the President, broadcast on 9 May by the television network KBS, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in stated that the DPRK might have used the missile launches to express its displeasure about the outcome of the North Korea–United States Hanoi Summit. With its actions, Pyongyang may have been attempting to apply pressure on Washington in order to push it towards restarting the dialogue. If the North Korean side continues to use similar tactics, it will become impossible to resolve outstanding issues by means of dialogue and consultations. Moon Jae-in added that if Pyongyang had any reservations, it needed to discuss them at the negotiating table. Seemingly, his stance turned out to be even more radical than Donald Trump’s.
In response to a question about missile type, South Korea’s President said that in the opinion of military experts, Pyongyang had launched short-range rockets. However, if information were to come to light that they had been armed, these launches would be deemed a clear violation of the UN Security Council Resolution. This was a strange statement for the country’s President to make, as he ought to remember relevant definitions.
In the meantime, South Korea’s intelligence services have noted that the recent missile launches were part of military drills (of a defensive nature), and that the decision to stage them may have been prompted by joint military exercises, conducted by South Korea and the USA, and by an announcement about a plan to equip ROK’s army with the latest weaponry.
DPRK representatives indirectly agree with the agency’s assessment, as they reminded the public that South Korea conducted joint military drills, called 19-1 Dong Maeng, with the United States and a separate exercise for ROK’s armed forces in March and April of this year. However, for unknown reasons, no one is talking about these provocative military actions.
The British news agency Reuters quoted sources at the Pentagon in its reports, which said the U.S. Department of Defense was unable to rule out that the DPRK had launched ballistic missiles on 9 May. However, the department’s official website has no information of this nature.
In any case, two missile launches within 5 days of each other indicate the following:
- The DPRK has successfully demonstrated that, despite the moratorium on ICBM (Intercontinental ballistic missile) launches, its military industrial complex continues to develop. This is also indicative of the extent to which it has been able to handle pressure from imposed sanctions.
- From the perspective of “changing the rules of the game”, the DPRK now has a new trump card, which has forced its opponents to re-evaluate a number of plans adopted to fight it. Of course, it is possible to develop countermeasures, but this will require more effort and time, but, in the meantime, key locations in the ROK remain vulnerable to attack during the conflict between North and South Korea.
- However, it is impossible not to concede that just as the joint military drills between the ROK and the USA, these launches do indeed increase tensions in the region but not to a great extent.
- Officially, the military tests did not signal the breakdown of dialogue, but we still need to wait and see whether attempts will be made to label the missiles “ballistic weapons”, in order to then accuse North Korea of violating the moratorium.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”