[Strategic Intel] 2017: North Korean missile failed; struck populated area

U.S. intelligence officials have evidence that a North Korean intermediate range ballistic missile failed during testing last year and crashed into a heavily populated area, but there is additional evidence that the North’s ballistic missile and nuclear infrastructure is maturing beyond the point of being able to destroy the threat in a secretive first strike, according to a newly published analysis:

On April 28, 2017, North Korea launched a single Hwasong-12/KN17 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from Pukchang Airfield in South Pyongan Province (the Korean People’s Army’s Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 447 in Ryongak-dong, Sunchon City, to be more precise). That missile failed shortly after launch and crashed in the Chongsin-dong, in North Korean city of Tokchon, causing considerable damage to a complex of industrial or agricultural buildings.

…[T]he missile’s first stage engines failed after approximately one minute of powered flight, resulting in catastrophic failure. The missile never flew higher than approximately 70 kilometers.

The location of the crash has been verified through U.S. government and commercial intelligence satellite imagery.

As for the missiles themselves and the North’s missile infrastructure, the analysis notes further:

Liquid-fuel missiles like the Hwasong-12, which use a highly volatile combination of hypergolic propellant and oxidizer (meaning that the two agents ignite spontaneously on contact), can produce massive explosions depending on how they fail. In this case, with the missile having survived its descent following an engine failure, it is likely that this facility at Tokchon experienced a large explosion upon impact. It’s impossible to verify if the incident caused any loss of life and, given the time of day the test occurred and the location of the impact, it may be likely that few, if any, casualties resulted from the incident. […]

Aside from the safety implications of North Korean launch practices, the few images associated with this test offer insight into the country’s pre-launch storage practices, with implications for U.S. and allied attempts at potential preemption and prevention. As seen in image 1, had the launch succeeded, Rodong Sinmun would likely have printed an image of Kim Jong-un standing in front of the transporter-erector-mounted IRBM in a hardened tunnel.

That would have (and now does) send a dire message to U.S. and allied military planners: North Korea’s missiles won’t be sitting ducks at known “launch pads,” contrary to much mainstream analysis. What’s more, the proliferation of newly constructed hangers, tunnels, and storage sites cannot be assumed to stop at the Pukchang Airfield. Similar facilities likely exist across the country. In 2017, not only has North Korea tested a massive variety of strategic weaponry, but it has done so from a more diverse list of launch sites — what the U.S. intelligence community calls “ballistic missile operating areas” — than ever before. Gone are the days of Kim Jong-un supervising and observing launches at a limited list of sites that’d include Sinpo, Sohae, Wonsan, and Kittaeryong.

Despite the failure, the analysis offers this sobering conclusion:

As North Korea’s production of now-proven IRBMs and ICBMs continues, it will have a large and diversified nuclear force spread across multiple hardened sites, leaving the preventive warfighter’s task close to impossible if the objective is a comprehensive, disarming first strike leaving Pyongyang without retaliatory options. The time is long gone to turn the clock back on North Korea’s ballistic missile program and its pre-launch basing options. [source]

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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