While North Korea’s latest launch of the Unha-3 (Taepodong 2) space launch vehicle intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) failed in its third attempt to place a satellite into orbit, the test doesn’t end Pyongyang's ongoing efforts to develop its catalogue of short, medium, and long-range ballistic missile systems.
On April 15, Pyongyang unveiled what appeared to be a new road-mobile long-range ballistic missile system, code-named KN-08, which hints that North Korea aims to develop a mobile ICBM that can be launched directly, without the lengthy preparation time required by the Taepodong 2. The new system also signals ambitious objectives, more missile tests, and ultimately, it raises questions about the covert external, technical and financial assistance that underlines North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.
During the April 15 military parade in Pyongyang, marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un declared that superiority in military technology was “was no longer monopolized by imperialists.” Following his first public speech, North Korea displayed one of its largest military parades, featuring at least six new road-mobile long-range missiles that were transported on top of a large 16-wheel TEL vehicle based on Chinese design.
The new missile’s appearance has stirred significant debate among arms control experts, intelligence and defense analysts on the viability, character, capability, and future deployment of North Korea’s new missile program.
On the one hand, there are skeptical suggestions that the new missiles, painted in a three-tone camouflage with serial numbers and stage-separation bands in clear white paint, are nothing but plywood mockups. In particular, selected design features of the new missile seem odd and raise considerable suspicions. Moreover, the uncertainty of its operational readiness is marked by the absence of any flight tests.
Others, however, see North Korea’s new missile development as a significant shift toward an actual ICBM missile force.
Indeed, there have been a series of less-noticed public statements by high-ranking U.S. officials that point toward North Korea’s emerging ICBM development trajectory. For example, during the 10th IISS Asia Security Summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, held in June 2011 in Singapore, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “with the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and their continued development of nuclear weapons, North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.”
More recently, on March 7, 2012, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified before the House Armed Service Committee, noting that “there is a development within North Korea of a road-mobile ICBM system that we’ve observed…We have not observed it being tested yet, to my knowledge. We are watching the development very closely.”
For more than three decades, North Korea has been developing and deploying a variety of ballistic missile technologies as force multipliers vis-à-vis qualitatively more advanced U.S.-South Korea conventional military capabilities.