The DPRK on Sunday announced five new ‘no sail zones’ on both its east and west coast, raising concerns in the South that Pyonyang may be gearing up for more short-range ballistic missile tests.
North Korea’s last round of short-range missile launches in October were passed off by many observers as evidence of Pyonyang’s ‘two-track’ strategy of asserting strength whilst trying to bring the Obama administration back to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue. So was last week’s artillery barrage near the ROK border. References to bargaining chips, double standards and even ‘the juvenile behavior of a teenager’ continue to pepper analysis of most North Korean belligerency. As North-South relations warm with talk of a possible summit between Kim Jong-Il and President Lee Myung-bak, any tests in the next few days will no doubt also be explained in similar terms. However, should we accept this conventional wisdom…
Whilst North Korea is mainly known for its SCUD-derivative Hwasong, Rodong and Taepodong series of ballistic missiles, its October 2009 tests involved suspected KN-02 missile technology. Like the rest of the North Korean missile program, the KN-02 is based on old Soviet technology (in this case the reverse engineered 9K79 Tochka provided to North Korea by Syria in 1996). However, what separates the the KN-02 from the rest of the North’s missile arsenal is that it uses solid-fuel, is more accurate than the notoriously inaccurate SCUD derivatives, and is road mobile. The KN-02 allegedly also flies a cruise missile profile, making it difficult for PATRIOT missile batteries located in South Korea to intercept. If fired from close enough to the DMZ, it could target U.S. military installations in the ROK.
Given the success of previous KN-02 tests, it is somewhat notable that all five of last October’s tests were considered failures. Whilst the North is well known for shortcomings in its long-range missile program, it is regarded as being relatively accomplished in the area of short- and medium-range missile design. Consequently, could the October tests have been experimental tests of enhanced KN-02 technology?
Bruce Bennett of RAND suggests that “North Korea may well be testing some different fuel, engine, or other missile variations, perhaps preparing to apply the KN-02 technology to a larger missile.’ Bennett notes that the missiles flew further, or at least in a manner which suggested they had a longer range (130km – 160km), than previously expected. Interestingly, these tests also came just twenty days after Iran’s very own short range, solid-fuel missile tests. Was this just coincidence or evidence of another Iran-DPRK missile cooperation project?
If the failed October 2009 tests do represent Pyonyang’s attempt to further enhance its KN-02 technology, then it’s likely that any short-range launches in the next few days will involve the testing of more KN-02 derivatives. Given the last round of KN-02 tests received a somewhat muted diplomatic reaction, its possible that further tests might also get brushed off merely as attention grabbing behavior. Consequently Pyonyang could get away with enhancing its firepower without damaging its ever-improving relations with the South. The finished product may too become a hit on the export market; small enough to hide in a van and seemingly light enough to transport by small aircraft.
Given current food shortages it would seemingly take a lot more than just juvenile behavior for Pyonyang to ban its own fishing trawlers from so many of its waters. Further tests should therefore be understood as being motivated by more than just an attempt to gain international attention.