Is North Korea Planning a Long-Range Missile Launch?

January 19, 2017
David Wright
Former contributor

A press story from South Korea reports that the North may be preparing for a missile test launch, possibly in the next few days. Some suggest this could be intended as fireworks for Donald Trump’s inauguration.

While this story talks about the test being of a long-range missile (an intercontinental range ballistic missile (ICBM)) the few details that have been made public don’t seem to support that—although not much is known at this point.

The press story said that the South Korean military has reported seeing two missiles on mobile launchers. It reports that the missiles are less than 15 meters in length.

The KN-14 missile, which was seen in on October 2015 parade and is thought to be a prototype for a long-range missile, is estimated to be about 17 meters long—which would appear to rule it out.

Moreover, while there has been a ground test of an engine that might be used for this missile, it’s not clear how close this missile is to actual flight testing. Since the initial flight test of this new missile has a relatively low chance of success, Pyongyang may not want to risk a test failure if the timing is meant to send a message around the inauguration.

Musudan?

It seems more likely that what was seen are Musudan (Hwasong-10) missiles, which are also carried on mobile launchers and are about 12 meters long. This missile had a successful launch in June 2016, following a string of five failures. It may have suffered two additional failures in October. So another launch of this missile also carries risk of failure.

The Musudan has a range of about 3,000 km, based on the June test. This is far short of ICBM range, which technically is considered anything over 5,500 km (3,400 miles), but would need to be 8,000-9,000 km (5,000-5,600 miles) for a North Korean missile to reach the US West Coast.

However, one report quoted a military official as saying that the missile observed was “different from a conventional Musudan missile in its length and shape,” so until we get more information the jury is still out on what Pyongyang may be planning.