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The Meaning of the North Korean Missile Launch

Musudan-ri, the small missile test pad, located on an isolated portion of North Korea's Northeast coast is one of the most photographed "secret" facilities in the world. A sparrow does not fall to the ground there without notice. It is now the focus of unprecedented international scrutiny. In spite of a constellation of military and commercial imaging satellites staring at the humble rocket pad, we learned of the missile launch not from a satellite image, but from South Korean Officials. This entire spectacle benefits two sets of hardliners; the North Korean Regime and the US missile defense proponents.

The Meaning of the North Korean Missile Launch

By Tim Brown, Senior Fellow,

Musudan-ri, the small missile test pad, located on an isolated portion of North Korea's Northeast coast is one of the most photographed "secret" facilities in the world. A sparrow does not fall to the ground there without notice. It is now the focus of unprecedented international scrutiny. In spite of a constellation of military and commercial imaging satellites staring at the humble rocket pad, we learned of the missile launch not from a satellite image, but from South Korean Officials. This entire spectacle benefits two sets of hardliners; the North Korean Regime and the US missile defense proponents.

Persistent Staring at the Musudan-ri

US Intelligence Community has been observing the small test site at Musudan-ri since it was first constructed in the mid-1970's and has continued to stare at it ever since. One of the first images that the commercial satellite company Space Imaging acquired in 1999 was of Musudan-ri. Now with almost a dozen commercial imaging satellites in orbit, the time during the day in which DPRK personnel can operate in privacy is growing shorter and shorter. Imaging satellites obey the laws of Kepler, and fly hundreds of miles above the earth, passing over the small North Korean test pad. Each arrives overhead at a different time but about at the same time each day. Traveling at about four miles per second, their window of opportunity is brief but predictable. The North Koreans know this, and plan their activities in between this growing satellite traffic. They operate at night, and during periods of cloud cover. Yet even night time and cloudy weather do not protect them from the small constellation of US reconnaissance satellites that can observe activities at Musudan-ri at night using infrared sensors, and from radar imaging satellites that can see through cloud cover.

Since 1999 to the present day, the number of commercial imaging satellites has grown from one to about fifteen today. There are five US commercial imaging satellites, GeoEye's Ikonos, GeoEye-1, and Orbview-3, and DigitalGlobe's, Quickbird, and WorldView-1. The French have the SPOT-5, NATO has their Helios. Israel has two reconnaissance satellites the Ofeq and TECSAR. The South Korean's have KOMPSAT-2. The Japanese have IGS-1 and IGS-2 imaging satellites and the IGS-4 radar imaging satellite. The Indian government has the TES satellite. The Russians have the Resurs-DK-1 imaging satellite as well as archival imagery for sale going back to the 1980's. According to satellite gurus Alan Thomson and Ted Molczan, the US government leads the pack with three ultra-high resolution KEYHOLE optical imaging satellites and 4 LACROSSE radar imaging satellites that can see at night and in cloud cover. The KEYHOLE satellite can see objects as small as softballs and have a limited low-light/ night capability.

Musudan-ri is also vulnerable to observation from high-altitude U-2R reconnaissance aircraft with side-looking radar and long-range electro-optical oblique cameras that can observe the test pad from far outside of North Korean airspace and at a safe distance from North Korean fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. High-altitude pilotless drones such as the Global Hawk, can observe Musudan-ri from a distance closer than the U-2, and are less vulnerable from the SAM threat. Since they have a small radar signature, they are less vulnerable, and their shoot-down doesn't carry the risk of a captured or dead US pilot. US submarines can loiter a few nautical miles off the coast and poke their periscopes to capture daytime or night time images of activity or a missile launch. These aerial and sub-surface platforms have the advantage of observing activity at the test site by arriving quietly suddenly, in between the times of the predictable satellite orbits.

While the North Koreans cannot hide the existence of the launch pad and missile checkout building, they do try to minimize the visible signature the overall facility. They have not built large buildings in well laid-out patterns, as do industrialized space-faring countries. New construction and modification of buildings at the test site accrete slowly over time. One could attribute this to the general poverty of the country, but it is also a deliberate attempt to subtly blend in. There are no obvious, high-walls, multi-layered concentric security fences, surface-to-air missile sites guarding the launch site. These are not needed because North Korea is a security perimeter. It is prison-state, where only the elite or the military travel. Most of the people live in poverty and are not allowed to travel. Since foreigner are rare and then only allowed to visit the capital, and cannot travel unescorted, the chances of someone traveling to Musudan-ri, taking pictures on their cell phone camera are nil. Most every structure within a 5-mile radius of the launch site probably has been cleared of peasants long ago and is now used to house and support the North Korean, missile technicians, personnel and military security. The peasants that do remain in the small fishing villages and collective farms, nearby are well-guarded and probably not allowed to travel to other parts of the country. The notable exception is the Iranian missile technicians who visit the villages of No-dong and Taepo-dong, and are reported to be working closely with North Korea on ballistic missiles.

The Origin of North Korean's obsession with secrecy - Allied Airpower during the Korean War

During the Korean War, allied airpower against the North Koreans had a devastating effect on facilities including factories, airfields, ports, airfields, bridges. On the tactical level, North Korea's infantry units began to operate at almost exclusively at night. From logistical movements, to night attacks and ambushes, the North Korean military became nocturnal. And for good reason, during the day, anything caught out in the open was subject to allied airpower predation. Military units that hid successfully by day and practiced disciplined camouflage concealment and deception (CCD), survived, those that didn't perished. This is why the North Koreans have taken extreme measures in (CCD) to this day. One reaction has been to build underground facilities -- factories, supply depots, submarine pens, and headquarters -- even aircraft runways extending into the sides of a mountain. The other reaction is to minimize the signature of its above ground facilities. The normal practice of the art of imagery analysis--detecting, identifying, differentiating military buildings fortification and facilities from the civil, simply don't seem to apply to North Korea. Fifty six years later, CCD might as well be second ideology after North Korea's Juche'- a national ideology of self-reliance. This practice of well-disciplined CCD extends from small tactical troops to protecting strategic assets, such as the Musudan-ri missile launch site.

Given the secrecy of North Korean state, the international news media seems to obsess over every ground vehicle observed at Musudan-ri, with each new commercial satellite image released. What do these vehicles mean? Is it an indication of an impending launch? The one or two ground vehicles that are seen occasionally might be caught out in the open by accident or moving on purpose. Who knows? From 400 miles up, any slight change in activity, vehicular or otherwise is analyzed by international observers like radiologists looking at MRI's for evidence of a cancerous tumor. North Korean secrecy allows the regime the opportunity to manipulate international perception of activity at Musudan-ri with a minimum of effort. Imagine if the North Koreans parked a large trailer with a plywood missile-shaped object near the launch pad. The internet would be abuzz with commentary by pundits, bloggers and international observers. Anywhere else on the planet, these activities could be more easily assessed, and less noticed.

A Small, Rudimentary Launch Pad

When the first commercial satellite images of Musudan-ri were made available by Space Imaging in 1999, one's reaction was, how can such a small rocket test pad, not much larger that a US model rocket hobbyist might have, be such a menacing threat to world peace? And yet, the North Koreans, have grabbed instant world-wide attention after they fired a Taepo-dong missile over the Island of Japan in 1998. Now, over ten years later, the North Koreans are about to do it again. This time they are attempting to launch a satellite in orbit, in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions. This from a country that is under international sanctions, has difficulties in importing food to feed their starving people, and is in almost complete world isolation.

Why are they doing it? North Korea desperately craves what the world will not give them - attention and respect. Having tried everything from tearing up international agreements, withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, illegally reprocessing nuclear fuel, restarting the nuclear power reactor at Yongbyon, testing a nuclear weapon in 2006, and repeatedly threatening military conflict with South Korea, - because of this, North Korea is treated as an international pariah. This latest launch attempt also may reflect an internal power struggle between hard-liners and more pragmatists (if there is such a thing) who are vying for power with a weakened leader Kim Jong Il who may have suffered a debilitating stroke in the summer of 2008.

A Space Race with South Korea ?

The timing of this latest launch might also be race with South Korea which plans to launch a satellite into orbit in the summer of 2009. South Korea, unlike its neighbor to the north, has a real space program with a real budget, western technical assistance, and a commercial partnership with Russia. They even have a press center for the international media to watch the launch of the Korea Space Launch Vehicle this summer at the Naro Space Center located on an island 485 kilometers south of Seoul. The South Korean's do not appear to racing with the North, but the North Koreans seem to be racing to launch their satellite into orbit first.

That the Japanese government was watching very closely for the North Korean missile launch is an understatement. It had threatened to shoot down the missile if it appears to be headed for Japan. It deployed AEGIS class warships and Patriot missiles to defend Japanese territory. On April 4th, the Japanese government mistakenly announced that the missile launch took place and convened a high-level government working group only to retract the statement minutes later. The US had deployed AEGIS class missile cruisers to the area track the launch and possibly shoot it down if its trajectory appear to be headed for US or allied territory. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft were reportedly deployed to the region and are on alert to be launched to track the missile launch and intercept the North Korean missile telemetry.

So What?

So, the world watched and waited for another North Korean missile or satellite launch. All eyes were focused on Musudan-ri. Did we really need commercial imagery of the launch pad to determine the timing of the launch? No. The North Koreans have announced in no uncertain terms that they intend to launch between the 4th and 8th April, 2009. We learned of the launch from wire service reports from the South Korean government official. No need to break away from regularly scheduled TV programming such as Wheel of Fortune or a rerun of The Simpsons.

Does a successful North Korean satellite orbit, threaten regional, or world security? Probably not. What effect will this launch have on US security policy? On Japanese defense policy? Probably nil, since US and Japanese policies were changed over a decade ago with the first North Korean missile launch in 1998. The US created the Rumsfeld Commission, to assess the need for Ballistic Missile Defense. Ten years and tens of billions of dollars later, the US track record for successfully interception ballistic missiles is not much better than North Korea's track record for launching ballistic missiles.

The 1998 missile launch had a much more profound effect on Japan. It was awakened from a 50-year slumber, created by a pacifist Constitution, having just fought and lost a bloody Pacific war. Japan reevaluated its Constitution and role in the world, and took a closer look at North Korea. Not party to the 50 year old US-Anglo intelligence sharing relationship, and having little to no access to US imagery intelligence, it launched its own military space reconnaissance satellite program, mainly to keep an eye one North Korea.

This entire spectacle really benefits only two constituencies - hardliners in North Korea, attempting to show that the country is relevant, and proponents of Missile Defense in the US, who justify their program with the feeble threat of the North Korean missile program. The two programs, barely able to reliably launch their missiles, reinforce each other. Neither the North Korean ICBM program nor its American counter, the Missile Defense program has been able to launch and test enough missiles to claim any real military reliability. And so, North Korea launched its missile, and defied the world community yet again. Planet Earth will continue to spin, and we will all go back to watching events that really matter on the world stage; the global economic slowdown, the winding down of the war in Iraq, the increasing conflict in Afghanistan; an unstable Pakistan, and the increasing narco-insurgency in the at-risk state of Mexico. The North Korean missile launch of 2009, will probably be remembered, to paraphrase the character playing British General Murray in the 1962 Film Lawrence of Arabia, "as a storm in a teacup, a side-show of a side-show".

Comments (6)

Timothy Drew:

"This entire spectacle really benefits only two constituencies - hardliners in North Korea, attempting to show that the country is relevant, and proponents of Missile Defense in the US..."

Just how have the proponents of Missile Defense in the US benefitted from North Korea's successful launch of a 3 stage missile/rocket that - apparently - no one in the world was even able to track beyond the jettison of the second stage? Is the 'communications satellite' in orbit at this very moment? Or did it splash down just off the shore of Alaska.

The only intelligence seems to be that the rocket/missile 'splashed down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.' If we do not know the location where this 'must have occurred' - how can the intelligence [sic] possibly be anything more than a supposition?

Our high imaging tracking radar can apparently detect from 600 miles something as small as a centimeter. Oh really? That third stage, and any payload, must really have been a few millimeters in length.

Why has no one in the world (the world as identified by Google) even bothered to address the ultimate fate of North Korea's missile/payload delivery system? We've had weeks of coverage about every aspect of this launch,and intense worldwide continuous scrutiny of the missile site in the hours and moments up to liftoff. The planet collectively held its breath as the first stage was reported [as opposed to observed] to have splashed down northwest of Japan; the second stage was jettisoned app. 600 miles to the east of Japan; and 600 miles closer to the US, Japan stopped tracking the missile/rocket; after the third stage ignited successfully...everyone apparently lost interest. called it a day, and proclaimed the missile/rocket 'must have' fallen 'somewhere' into the Pacific Ocean.

How could a US Missile Defense system possibly intercept a missile we can not even detect? Change we can believe in?! Missile Defense is the same old implausible status quo; and with our failure to even detect the current position of the missile: how can we still believe in that?


Mr. Drew.

Do you really think that the U.S. does not know where the final stage of the missile landed? Of course they do. Why would you want to give the North Koreans this valuable bit of intelligence. I am sure that the North Koreans do not have a telemetry ship out in the Pacific to track the splashdown of their simulated warhead. This is exactly like in the Guld war, when the U.S. and Iraelis did not want to disclose exactly where the Scuds laned. Why help Iraqi targeting? This is not rocket science.

Korean Central News Agency of DPRK reports at that the orbit is an "elliptic orbit at the angle of inclination of 40.6 degrees at 490 km perigee and 1,426 km apogee. Its cycle is 104 minutes and 12 seconds". It also says it is broadcasting on 470 MHz, which is the high end of the public UHF band - clearly chosen to make it as accessible as possible. Why would they mention this if it is not really happening ?

Has anybody listened for it ? Has anybody looked for it ? Or are they all sitting around laughing at yet another North Korean failure, because the US says so ?

I don't have the facilities to find out, so I come to for some professional coverage, and all I get is "South Korea, unlike its neighbor to the north, has a real space program with a real budget, western technical assistance, and a commercial partnership with Russia."

What is it exactly that makes South Korea's program a "real" space program, while North Korea's is an unreal program ?


Mr. Brown,
Though I found your article most interesting, there seems to be portions of it dedicated to making sarcastic remarks regarding hard-liners in North Korea and here in the US (Pro-missle defense). I can assure you that stating a premise and then supporting it with cogent evidence is the most effective way in which to convince others to accept your argument. However, when making remarks that are unnecessary it merely damages your stature in the eyes of your peers.


Agree with Bill - Drew, you really need a reality check. Do you really think we would expose capability to North Korea - all for what, to make you happy? Believe it or not Drew, there are secrets that the United States Goverment keeps from you.


Thanks to both TIMs and Bill for the good laughter I enjoyed on reading the article, the comment and the reply to the latter! Henri, Switzerland

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