News / Asia

Satellite Imagery Suggests Future Large N. Korean Rocket Launch

Victor Beattie

The U.S.-Korea Institute has released satellite photographs indicating North Korea may be nearing completion of construction and testing leading to long-range missile and satellite launches.  The images were made public Tuesday as the top U.S. Navy Pacific commander cautioned the global community against indifference to the pace of the North’s advances in nuclear and missile technology.

Satellite imagery

The U.S.-Korea Institute’s 38 North website released satellite imagery Tuesday suggesting that activity at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station means it is preparing for long-range ballistic missile and satellite launches.  It said the height of the gantry for launches has been increased to over 50 meters and expects construction of an associated rail spur and road to accommodate larger rockets will be complete next year.

The website said another series of tests of the KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile’s first stage rocket motor could end this year, although how successful those tests are remains a mystery.  It also expects full-scale flight testing will be the next step.

The KN-08 was unveiled during a military parade in Pyongyang in April, 2012, although analysts were divided whether it was a mock-up, rather than real missile.  In December of that year, the North sent a satellite into orbit on a multi-stage launch vehicle.

Ralph Cossa, head of the Hawaii-based security think-tank Pacific Forum, said, if the report is accurate, it is a sobering development. "If they develop a road-mobile missile, that increases their offensive capabilities, increases the survivability of their nuclear force, and I think it’s something that we have to take very seriously," he said.

Timing, long-range missiles

Cossa, however, believes North Korea is a long way from having an operational, long-range intercontinental missile with a nuclear warhead.

At U.S. defense headquarters at the Pentagon Tuesday, the head of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, said there is broad debate within the intelligence community about how much capability North Korea has to weaponize long-range missiles.

"As a military commander, I have to plan for the worst and I have to plan for, number one, what the North Koreans say they have, and they say they have it, and what they demonstrate what they might have when they show it to us.  And, from those indications, we have to show that we’re properly postured to protect not only our homeland, which includes all of our territories and the state of Hawaii, where I happen to be, but also that we’re able to provide defense and security for our allies and our key partners in the region," he explained.

Locklear said he believes North Korea continues to make progress in both their nuclear and missile capability and that they continue to want to do that.

Strained relations

The admiral also expressed concern that the global community is becoming numb to the amount of testing the North does.

"The long-term concern about North Korea is that, every time they do something that the international community has told them not to do, particularly as it relates to missile technology or nuclear technology, you have to assume that it is a step forward in technology.  Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t be doing it.  The concern I have is that it becomes, over and over again you see it, and you become somewhat numb to it, you become immune to it, and you start saying, ‘Well it’s not such a big deal.  They fired another missile last week.’  But, on the long-term view for North Korea, we have to continue to demand that they denuclearize, and they stop their missile program in the fashion they have it today.  Will they?  I don’t know," stated Locklear.

He also expressed concern about strained relations between allies South Korea and Japan stemming from Tokyo’s militarist past and occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

"The political issues between South Korea and Japan, and as their governments and people deal with them, do have an impact on our ability to conduct credible military-to-military engagement with each other.  It is very important that the Japanese and the South Koreans recognize that they have many mutual security interests that can be benefited by a bilateral and trilateral military-to-military cooperation," Locklear noted. "They have a common concern, a huge common concern with North Korea, and that we encourage them to work together to overcome their political difficulties so we can work to provide a better security environment in this region."

He said both South Korea and Japan are not capable of full information-sharing in such areas as missile defense today because of restrictions of a political nature each has in place.  He said that degrades mutual security.

The Pacific Forum’s Brad Glosserman sees little chance of improvement in bilateral relations. "It’s a very difficult slog [journey].  I mean, at this moment, the lack of political will at the highest levels of the Japanese and [South] Korean leadership is remarkable," he said. "You have fatigue in Japan, a sense that South Korea is more interested in focusing on the past and thinking about what Japan has done and could do in the future.  You have a political climate in South Korea that feels the Japanese are an untrustworthy partner."

Glosserman said it is unfortunate that the populist rhetoric in South Korea over Japan’s new collective-defense posture announced July 1 is overblown.  He said the extent of Japan’s ability to take part in peacekeeping missions and aid regional allies, including the United States in the event of a crisis, is overblown and would actually improve the regional security climate.

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