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The DPRK Missile Launch – The 411

The DPRK Missile Launch - The 411


With the expected launch of a long-range Unha-3 rocket by North Korea in the next couple of days, speculation has turned to whether or not the exercise is a cover for a new ballistic missile test.  Space Development Department Deputy Director Ryu Kum Chol explained that “The launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite is the gift from our people to our great leader, comrade Kim Il Sung, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, so this cannot be a missile test.”  However, experts have observed that the Unha 3 rocket is likely to be a modified version of the North’s Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile, which is last assumed to have been tested in spring 2009.  Because of the elusive and very closed nature of the country, outside experts are left to speculate about what exactly the North Koreans are up to. Could it be some sabre-rattling to further consolidate the power of Kim Jong Il heir Kim Jong Un?  An attempt to communicate to the outside world, as Dr. Jim Walsh from the MIT Security Studies Program, speculated in a recent interview with CNN? Or both? Why might Pyongyang be conducting this launch on the heels of the deal with the U.S. for food aid for its starving people?  Why would they purposely scuttle the deal?  Clearly, Washington is not happy and has threatened to call off the deal.

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation has issued a FAQ on the upcoming launch that provides useful information on what may be happening in the next couple of days, what the difference between a space launch and a missile launch is, and what may become of the so-called “Leap Day Deal’ between the U.S. and Pyongyang.

Adding to the missile/space launch situation is speculation that the DPRK is getting ready to conduct another nuclear test.  New satellite imagery obtained by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) suggests that Dep Director Ryu may not have been telling the truth about the nature of the missile launch – quelle surprise!  The South Korean media have also been reporting on a ramp-up of excavation activity at the Pungye.  At issue is the growing pile of dirt at the test site which seems to indicate not the excavation of another test shaft, but the accumulation of dirt from elsewhere which will be used to plug the existing test shaft in advance of a test.

According to ISIS:

“According to [the South Korean news] reports, North Korea would use this material to plug a shaft in advance of a nuclear explosive test, which by implication could happen soon.  However, it is possible that the increase in material seen in the April 1, 2012 image is resulting from further excavation of a test shaft, and not evidence of an intention to plug the shaft before a test. Moreover, even if the South Korean report is correct, the test may not be imminent.”  Confused?  Yeah, me too.

But, let’s review what we know:  the government in Pyongyang is getting ready to launch a missile which may or may not carry a satellite.  It may or may not be a test of a new missile capable of carrying nukes.  In addition, some satellite imagery indicates that the DPRK may, depending on the significance and timing of a growing pile of dirt, be prepping for an underground nuclear test.  All of this comes on the heels of the conclusion of a deal with Washington that would have provided food aid to the starving North Korean masses.

Two words:  Oy Vey.



Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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