North Korea’s latest back-to-back tests of its mid-range Musudan missile bring the country closer to being able to strike large swathes of Asia and should be seen as a “partial success,” experts told The Diplomat.
While neither of the two missiles launched Wednesday from the port city of Wonsan reached their estimated range of 3,000 kilometers, North Korea’s fifth and sixth attempts appeared to be the most successful yet.
Unlike previous launches that are believed to have ended in an explosion or crash within seconds, the first missile traveled 150 km and second 400 km, South Korean and U.S. defense officials said. The second missile reportedly also reached an altitude of 1,000 km, higher than any previously-launched North Korean missile. It is unclear if the missiles malfunctioned or were intended to land in the Sea of Japan, where they are thought to have fallen.
South Korea branded the first launch a failure, but said it was analyzing data before reaching a conclusion about the second.
Independent analysts, however, said it was already clear that North Korea had progressed from its previous attempts and questioned the characterization of the launches as failures.
“While the first one flew only 150 km, from reports, the missile still successfully left the launcher and immediate launch area, which prior tests had not succeed at,” said Nathan Hunt, a reconstruction specialist who writes for John Hopkins University-affiliated website 38 North.
“It is likely possible that this initial success is what made North Korea take the decision to go ahead with the second test several hours later that flew 400 km.”
Hunt said Pyongyang would be emboldened to continue testing the missile in defiance of UN sanctions after the relative success of its latest attempts.
“Instead of viewing today’s tests as total failures, it can be assumed by today’s test, from the fact both missiles seemed to have successfully launched, that regime is making a little progress on fixing issues with initial stages of launches,” he said.
With a fully functional Musudan, Pyongyang would be able to target Japan, much of China, and the U.S. territory of Guam. Its first known test of the missile, timed to coincide with the April 15 birthday of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, failed in a “fiery, catastrophic attempt,” according to the U.S. military. After the most recent prior attempt on May 31, anonymous South Korean officials told media the missile exploded at launch.
Melissa Hanham, a senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, called the latest attempts “a success,” also challenging the narrative of failure.
“Testing is an iterative process,” she said. “With each test, they gain some new information.”
Hanham said the full extent of North Korea’s progress would become clear once further information became available.
Of particular concern, she said, was the possibility the latest launches used a new form of engine that was recently displayed at North Korea’s Sohae launch site and could power the KN-08 intercontinental missile.
“It’s just a guess though,” she said. “This engine is very worrisome because it demonstrates a more sophisticated level of engineering than previously thought, uses more energetic fuel, and could also be used in the KN-08.”