Did North Korea Really Fake an ICBM Test in March?

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

Did North Korea Really Fake an ICBM Test in March?

After the recent confirmed launch of a Hwasong-17 missile, it’s time to revisit claims that North Korea “faked” a previous launch.

Did North Korea Really Fake an ICBM Test in March?

This photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what it says is a test-fire of a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), at an undisclosed location in North Korea on March 24, 2022.

Credit: Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File

Back in March, North Korea announced it had launched the Hwasong-17, its new “monster” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which boasts the longest estimated range in its arsenal. When North Korea released a propagandistic video of the March 24 launch, international and South Korean analysts were quick to point out certain suspicious details in the footage and satellite imagery.

Some analysts subsequently claimed that the broadcast launch of Hwasong-17 was from a failed launch attempt on March 16, and that the detected successful launch on March 24 was actually a Hwasong-15 bearing a reduced payload. There was no direct evidence to identify the later launch as a Hwasong-15, but clues that North Korea had included clips from a previous failed launch in its new propaganda video fueled suspicions that the March 24 launch must have been a “fake” Hwasong-17.

There has been some controversy regarding the “faking” thesis. The Japanese Ministry of Defense retained its assessment of the missile as a Hwasong-17, and some pundits argued that merely tweaking the payload or the amount of fuel in a Hwasong-15 would be unlikely to produce such a big leap in range (there are, however, opinions to the contrary). The South Korean Ministry of Defense, however, sided with many international analysts in judging that the March 24 launch was a Hwasong-15 disguised as a Hwasong-17, while claiming that this judgment is shared by U.S. intelligence as well (The U.S. neither  confirmed nor denied this). In the weeks and months that followed, the faking thesis became widely reported in international media and open source analysis.

The recent November 18 ICBM launch exhibited a highly similar flight trajectory as the one launched on March 24, leading some analysts initially to assess the missile to be a Hwasong-15. However, it turned out that the missile launched on November 18 was a Hwasong-17. This new information makes it likely that the March 24 launch was also a Hwasong-17, prompting analysts to reconsider the previously influential – but largely unsubstantiated – claim that it was a Hwasong-15 in disguise.

What is retrospectively noteworthy is not the initial divergence of opinions, or what now appears to be the misguided accusation of a fake launch by North Korea, but the scarcity of discussions about whether it made sense for North Korea to have faked a Hwasong-17 launch in the first place. The lack of attention to this concern, which was overshadowed by attention to technical details, such as the direction of sunlight in the video footage and burn marks on the ground, is most likely because few analysts saw any puzzle to be explained. After all, do we not already know that North Korea loves propaganda and fakes?

One notable exception was an article by Vann H. Van Diepen published in 38 North shortly after the March 24 launch, which explored the various reasons why the North Koreans may actually have launched a Hwasong-17, just as they claimed. For one, the Hwasong-15, tested only once five years ago, is far from a missile that the North Koreans would be “pretty sure would work” and offers little advantage over testing another Hwasong-17, the components of which had been tested multiple times.

In addition, unlike most countries, North Korea has an accumulated record of testing new missiles back-to-back, so it would not be surprising even if a Hwasong-17 was tested twice within such a short interval. North Korea also likely thought that U.S. intelligence would be able to detect what type of missile it had launched, diminishing whatever posturing effect such a disguise would have had.

It is not hard to come up with additional reasons: Launching an ICBM with a heavily compromised payload would have meant wasting an expensive opportunity to test the missile with a realistic warhead. Also, the scenes of a dramatic celebration between the supreme leader and the core missile development team look extravagant for a mere relaunch of a rocket successfully tested five years ago, and “staging” such a moment of collective effervescence would have an adverse effect on leadership and inner group morale.

Finally, at no point in 2022 was the North Korean government critically pressed to make up for the supposed failure of the March 16 launch as quickly as possible. Waiting several more weeks or months to test another Hwasong-17 in due course would have been a more sensible option than telling a risky lie in a hurry.

Yet, even the 38 North article referenced above curiously concluded that “[i]t is plausible that the North launched a Hwasong-15 or modified version and achieved the performance demonstrated in the March 24 test.” Echoing numerous popular journalistic analyses, Van Diepen identified external posturing (even at the risk of getting debunked) and domestic propaganda as factors that could plausibly have counterbalanced the host of reasons to believe the contrary. Not only is “Pyongyang’s missile testing … almost certainly driven primarily by political over technical considerations,” Van Diepen concluded, but even those political considerations are apparently about building Potemkin villages designed to falsely impress both external and internal audiences.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile program has traditionally served a dual purpose of developing technology for military deterrence and providing leverage for negotiating with the United States for a potential improvement in relations. The latter purpose is what motivates speculations about fakes and bluffs among outside observers. While both purposes have played genuine roles in the past, however, the balance has shifted toward the former in recent years.

As the leaked “love letters” between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un show, after the disappointment of the “no-deal” Hanoi summit meeting in January 2019 – and especially after the sensational but fruitless Trump-Kim meeting at the DMZ that summer – North Korea rapidly became skeptical that the United States is willing to alleviate sanctions for anything short of a complete disarmament of its nuclear program. North Korea has since become increasingly unresponsive to requests for negotiation and stepped up its weapons program while attempting to strengthen ties with its traditional allies.

This trend was accelerated in early 2022, when the dovish Moon Jae-In administration in South Korea lost the presidential election to a hardline North Korea hawk, Yoon Suk-yeol. Upon assuming office in May, Yoon quickly engaged in a range of actions that North Korea finds strongly provocative, such as large-scale joint military drills with the United States.

North Korea is rapidly advancing its weapons program according to the five-year weapons development plan that it established at the start of 2021 and has already made remarkable progress, especially considering the heavy sanctions it is under. The rapid development of not only asymmetric warfare capabilities but also its aging conventional fighting force strongly indicates that North Korea is serious about improving its military capabilities.

Consistent with the changed military and diplomatic circumstances, the North’s responses to South Korea-U.S. military exercises have recently diverged from the past. While North Korea in the past had responded more passively – often with little more than harsh words – to such pressures, it is currently responding with unprecedentedly bold and massive military actions that display little fear of escalation.

The nearly hackneyed interpretation that North Korea’s missile launches are aimed at domestic propaganda is also losing relevance due to the unexpected stability of its government, which, despite harsh economic sanctions, is showing no signs of crisis. The economy, which had reportedly been improving prior to COVID-19, is also holding up despite continuing difficulties. There has not been any uncontrolled surge of prices, as seen in North Korea previously during the “Arduous March” as well as many other countries undergoing a socioeconomic crisis.

Admissions of failures, delays, and difficulties have been remarkably common in North Korean political and media discourse under Kim Jong Un, something that marks a notable change from the previous period and most likely reflects the regime’s increased confidence in the firmness of popular support. All in all, there is little reason to speculate that this government currently feels the pressure to placate the population even at the cost of the morale of the inner group of commanders and engineers working around the clock to develop a workable military deterrence against its much larger and more advanced state adversary.

There is an increasing recognition that outside analyses of North Korea have been less than optimal as a field of science. Recent research has attributed this to the tendency among Western analysts to underestimate the North’s capacity, resilience, and motivation, which stems from deep-seated prejudice dating as far back as the Korean War. Concerning the launch of the Hwasong-17 ICBM, which had supposedly been debunked by eagle-eyed international analysts, the “faking” thesis was importantly buttressed by the media tropes of irrationality, impulsiveness, failure, and deception that made most analysts ignore serious reasons to be skeptical of this thesis.

Analysts may still critically monitor the North for potential fakes and bluffs, but such analyses should be conducted while guarding against the inherited stereotypes that do more harm than good in today’s geopolitical context.