**UPDATE/15 April** U.S. and ROK defense officials report the test of North Korea’s intermediate range missile ended in failure. The missile, believed to be a BM-25 Musudan, exploded shortly after launch. The South Korean Defense Ministry reported the failure shortly after it was detected, and U.S. Strategic Command confirmed that assessment.
Needless to say, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un is probably displeased at this turn of events, so there are probably a few more rocket scientists in the gulag this morning, or anti-aircraft gun crews have some new targets to work with.
But the failure will not deter Pyongyang. Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Non-Proliferation Center in California, told the Washington Post that North Korea will still gain valuable data from the test, figure out what went wrong, and eventually achieve success. The younger Kim and his ruling clique are merciless, but they are also patient in pursuit of their WMD and ballistic missile goals.
It remains one of the biggest mysteries of the North Korean ballistic missile program. Since 2010, the DPRK has ocasionally exhibited an intermediate range, road-mobile missile, nicknamed the Musudan. Leaked intelligence reporting also suggests the system (sometimes referred to as the BM-25) has been exported to Iran, giving that country another potential delivery platform for conventional or nuclear warheads.
Still, our knowledge of the Musudan–and its operational status in North Korea and Iran–remains limited, for a simple reason. The BM-25 has never been flight-tested by Pyongyang or Tehran. Some analysts believe the missiles displayed by Pyongyang are actually decoys or mock-ups, suggesting that development of the operational system has lagged behind.
But that intel gap may soon be filled. Pentagon sources tell CBS News and the Associated Press that North Korea is expected to conduct a test launch of the missile, possibly within the next 12 hours:
The missile in question is a Musadan, which is road mobile and has enough range to reach the Aleutians and Guam. It’s never been tested before, so this is another step toward being able to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon.
Friday, April 15 marks the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the “Great Leader” who rule North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994.
Given Pyongyang’s penchant for conducting military demonstrations on key historical dates, the Friday launch window is hardly surprising. It’s also clear that the Pentagon’s prediction is based on more than Kim Il-Sung’s birthdate. Apparently, our intel systems have detected late-stage launch preparations which suggest the BM-25 will make its first flight in the next day or so. Those preparations likely involve fueling of the missile; the Musudan (like many older systems) utilizes a liquid fuel; once the tanks have been filled, the missile must remain at the launch site because it lacks the structural strength to be safely transported to another location.
A fueled BM-25 can remain in that configuration for up to several weeks. Expectations for a near-term launch may be based on other indications, such as the expected arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (and other VIPs), or the establishment of airspace closure areas near the test site. That location has not been disclosed by US officials but in the spring of 2013, two Musudans, mounted on their mobile launchers, were observed along the DPRK’s east coast, raising speculation about a possible launch. However, the missiles were eventually removed from that site, and the launch was never conducted.
The expected Musudan test comes amid escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula, and a recent string of provocations by Pyongyang. North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test earlier this year; launched a long-range missile from the Sohae Space Center in February, and fired an ICBM engine at the same complex last week. A successful BM-25 launch would be evidence of continued progress in the DPRK’s efforts to field missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons against targets in the Far East and the CONUS. Most experts still believe North Korea lacks the ability to produce a “miniaturized” nuclear warhead that can fit on the Musudan, or longer-range missiles like the KN-08 and KN-14, believed capable of hitting targets in the western United States.
Mastering that technology is just a matter of time. Technology sales to Iran help fund development efforts, and North Korea has long-established ties with Pakistan, which have helped it obtain (and advance) nuclear technology. There are also questions about how much “help” Pyongyang may have received from Russia. The BM-25 is based on the SS-N-6, an old, Soviet-era SLBM design which was designed to carry three nuclear warheads, and deployed on Yankee I class ballistic missile subs. Moscow claims that nuclear technology was omitted from the blueprints and other technical data that was sold to Pyongyang. Given the current level of technical competence in the DPRK, it wouldn’t be difficult for North Korean scientists to develop a nuclear version of the Musudan.
ADDENDUM: Reporting from South Korean media, including the semi-official Yonhap news agency, indicates the BM-25 being prepped for launch was observed near the port city of Wonsan, on North Korea’s east coast.