Will North Korea admit defeat after more missile failures?

Story highlights

  • North Korea has launched several Musudan missiles without success
  • Schilling says testing missiles in quick succession suggests other motives are at play
  • North Korea has usually done what sensible engineers do in the face of failure -- stand down

John Schilling is an aerospace engineer with more than 20 years of experience, specializing in rocket and spacecraft propulsion and mission analysis. He's a regular contributor to 38 North, a North Korean monitoring project run by the U.S. Korea Institute at SAIS. He has updated previous analysis published on June 5. The views expressed here are the author's own.

(CNN)Last month, we noted that an unprecedented four consecutive failures for North Korea's Musudan missile, and the extreme haste in which those tests were conducted suggested both severe problems with the missile and a desperate attempt to score at least a propaganda victory with the floundering system.

They are apparently still desperate. The South Korean government now reports two more Musudan tests, only hours apart and still not much in the way of success.
    The Musudan is an intermediate-range missile with a strike range of 2,500 to 4,000 kilometres (1,553 to 2,485 miles).
    The first reportedly broke up in flight 93 miles (150 kilometers) downrange, while the second may have flown as far as 248 miles (400 kilometers). That's better than we've seen in any previous test but only about a tenth of the Musudan's potential range.
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    The failed tests are new, but we've known about the Musudan missile for some time. It showed up in North Korea over a decade ago, and it seems to be based on a 1960s-era Soviet design with some local modifications.
    It appears to be a mobile intermediate-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead as far as the critical U.S. base at Guam.
    Indeed, it may have been optimized for that specific mission. But for ten years, the North Koreans apparently never tested the Musudan to see if it would work. It is increasingly clear to everyone that it doesn't.
    That is new.
    North Korea's missiles usually fail the first time -- even the less ambitious, shorter-ranged Nodong exploded on the pad in its first launch attempt. But in the past, the North Koreans have always done what sensible engineers do in the face of failure -- stand down, figure out what went wrong, and fix it before trying again.
    For a missile, this can take months or even years. The North Koreans have always been patient. And, in spite of the hardships they have labored under, they have usually succeeded by the third or fourth try.

    Foolish, desperate?

    A test flight of the Musudan was long overdue, but repeating the attempt five times so soon after the first catastrophic failure can only be described as foolish and desperate.
    There was little chance of real success no matter how many rockets they launched, and even if they count the last test as a partial success the rapid pace of the testing leaves them little chance of understanding why that one almost worked where the others failed.
    The logical conclusion is that they don't really care -- they aren't trying to develop a weapon that can be trusted to work in wartime, but just need one successful flight to send a message.
    The message is presumably political. From a technical standpoint, the Musudan gives North Korea no capability it didn't already have except to target Guam. Possibly the regime felt it needed to demonstrate that specific capability -- Guam is the only sovereign U.S. territory North Korea could hope to reach with its current weapons.
    Possibly they just wanted to demonstrate something new to prove they were still playing the game, and the Musudan was what they had available. The intended audience may have been domestic, or Chinese, in which case we may never understand the details.

    Musudan a threat?

    But if the intent is unclear, any North Korean test also raises the question of capability: Is the Musudan missile a real threat? The answer is that the Musudan is a bigger threat to the people tasked with launching it than to anyone it is aimed at.
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    It is possible that North Korea will retrench and give their engineers time to fix the problems, maybe come back with a working missile in a year or two.
    But if they were going to do that, they probably wouldn't have demanded those same engineers do six tests that were almost certain to fail, too rapidly to learn from the experience.
    Possibly they will call this last flight a success and go home; possibly they will try a few more times in hopes of a better performance by dumb luck. But this path does not lead to an operational weapon, just a solitary propaganda stunt.
    This should not be cause for complacency. Somewhere in North Korea is a group of people so desperate and foolish as to have launched six missiles that don't work. But somewhere else in North Korea are the people who carefully and methodically developed rockets that can put satellites into orbit, and nuclear weapons nearly as powerful as the one which flattened Hiroshima.
    Anyone who can do these things, can build a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile if they take the time to do it right.
    The North Koreans have shown us mock-ups of mobile ICBMs that they claim to be building, and rather than rushing into premature flight tests they have shown us pictures of a more cautious ground test program. They have also been working on a small ballistic-missile submarine, and a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile.
    If these systems are in the hand of one of the careful, methodical, and competent North Korean engineering teams, they could emerge as more capable and versatile systems than the Musudan would have been -- but in that case, not until 2020 or later.
    Today, all we have to worry about are the thousand or so short- and medium-range missile with which North Korea could attack targets in South Korea and Japan, and the dozen or so nuclear warheads they may be able to mount on some of those missiles.
    John Schilling is an aerospace engineer with more than 20 years of experience, specializing in rocket and spacecraft propulsion and mission analysis. He's a regular contributor to 38 North, a North Korean monitoring project run by the U.S. Korea Institute at SAIS. He has updated previous analysis published on June 5. The views expressed here are the author's own.