Editor’s Note: David Schmerler is a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies(CNS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. The views expressed below are his own.
Images reveal new details about North Korean weapon program
They include rare images of failed test, close ups of engines and missile storage facilities
Following the successful launch of their first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4, the Hwasong-14, North Korea threw a series of celebrations to commemorate the work done by those involved in the project.
From a hero’s welcome in the capital to a banquet which featured table miniatures of their long range missile systems, the celebrations culminated in a concert attended by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
A video of this concert, roughly one hour and 28 minutes long, showed singers and dancers commemorating the event
About half way through the concert however, a series of images appeared showing scenes from North Korea’s missile program, some of which have never before been released to the outside world.
These images, 190 in total, contained scenes from the early years of North Korea’s missile program under Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, until the most recent ICBM test on July 4.
They showed old images of missile systems that would leave a huge mark on the North’s missile program, scenes from tests that failed, development facilities and even what may be our first ground imagery of what North Korean missile basing, or storage, looks like.
Here’s what stood out:
This appears to be a Scud-B missile with what might be a Soviet designation on its side. The Scud-B was first acquired by North Korea from Egypt for reverse engineering sometime between 1979 and 1980.
While this Scud might not be from that original transaction, it shows former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspecting the missile system that would eventually become a major influence on their program.
We were then shown an image of what might be one of the first versions of the Hwasong-10 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which is also known as the Musudan.
Much like the Scud-B, this missile’s design has origins in the Soviet Union.
Based on an older Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), the Hwasong-10’s presence in North Korea could stretch back more than 20 years, though it was first publicly revealed in a military parade in 2010 and then first successfully tested in June 2016.
Since then, the missile has undergone many changes, likely due to a series of failed tests last year. The images published from this system’s first successful test showed the missile with a new paint job and the addition of grid fins around the base to improve its stability during flight.
The transporter also saw modification, no doubt a result from its past track record of blowing up prior to and shortly after launching.
Later we were shown this same missile system without paint – and the best view of its engine to date. The Hwasong-10’s engine uses a complex design that signals a break from North Korea’s reliance on iterations of the Scud and similar Nodong missile engine.
We were also shown scenes of tests and facilities. These tests were of launch components, engines and even missile launches that failed, which North Korea rarely publicizes.
First ground shot
Above is the first ever ground-level image of the missile ejection test stand at the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard, home to North Korea’s Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SBLM) program.
While we have seen images from Sinpo before, the one above shows a scene of the testing that contributed to their ability to launch a missile from a submarine, notably the ability to launch a missile from a tube.
We can see Kim Jong Un walking away from a SLBM body that was just ejected from the test stand to the left. While this site’s ejection test stand has been widely reported on, we were also shown a similar ejection test stand that was not at Sinpo.
This image shows a missile body being loaded into another ejection test stand.
If we are to believe the chronological order in which these images were shown, this test is related to the land based version of their SLBM, the Pukguksong-2, showing that the testing of certain launch processes are happening at more than one location across the country.
Rare image of failed test
When North Korea successfully tests a missile, we usually receive a series of images revealing more details about the test. When these tests fail however, we generally are not so lucky.
The image above stands out as it is of a failed test of the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), but not of the only successful test they have to date. There were reported failures of this system prior to the its first successful test in mid-May.
In this launch, we can see the Hwasong-12 with its original black and white paint job launching from a location near a large body of water, in contrast to the black and yellow painted missile we saw launched near Kusong.
It is more than likely that this is from one of the Hwasong-12’s failed launches near Sinpo on the North Korea’s east coast.
In addition to all of these new images, we might also have been shown the first-ever ground images of how North Korea intends to base their missiles.
Here we can see the transporter that was originally only associated with the Hwasong-10 in front of what might be a tunnel or hardened garage entrance. This would be a first for North Korea, as they very conservative when it comes to displays of their missile program after testing.
Unlike the displays of vast underground tunnels and occasional missile silo that you can see in Iranian missile footage, North Korea has never shown actual deployment sites, and for good reason.
If your adversary can identify where you keep your missiles, it increases the likelihood that they can target and attack said sites, destroying them or at least significantly hindering your ability to use missiles quickly.
In addition to the previous image, we see this more imposing scene of Kim Jong Un standing in front of a Hwasong-12 IRBM. At first glance I took this to be underground missile base.
However, if you look at the reported test locations for this system, one failure occurred at the Pukchang Airfield.
Like many of the larger airfields in North Korea, there are adjacent underground hangars, including the one at Pukchang. Taking this into context and looking at underground hangar designs in other countries, this shot could very well be taken in one of those hangars, possibly even the one at Pukchang.
What does all of this mean?
The images displayed at the concert helped to flesh out information about the history of North Korea’s missile program.
They reveal with more detail the technological achievements which have allowed Pyongyang to develop a more diverse and sophisticated ballistic missile arsenal.
All of these advances, however, were presented as being directly tied to the Kim family.
In past media releases on missile or component testing, we will often get a mix of images with and without Kim Jong Un.
However in all 190 images release from the concert, a Kim is either in the shot or that image is a composite of two scenes with amissile and one of the three Kims, hammering home the point that the Kim family have been responsible for the program’s development and success. There was never any doubt that this was how state security was being present in North Korea, but this presentation perfectly stresses that point.
It also demonstrates how important this program is to Kim Jong Un. With images showing his presence at tests we had never seen before and at missile component testing assembly, we can most likely expect that this program is not going to slow down anytime soon – and that we will probably be seeing more images like these in the future.