Pit or Get Off the Shot: Is North Korea Going to Flight Test the Musudan or Not?

So, are the North Koreans going to test a fricking Musudan or what?

Along with many of my close friends from my days as a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of my first bosses was a rather colorful retired Army Colonel who would respond to our youthful indecision with a metaphor involving bodily functions that more or less amounted to “fish or cut bait.” He worked a lot on North Korea issues, even briefly holding the KCNA-bestowed title of “human dreg” for suggesting the DPRK had a “human rights problem.” I can’t help but think fondly of Bill, sitting in his smoking office, as I wonder whether Kim Jong Un will pit or get off the shot, as it were.

Recent news stories are no particular help.

On May 7, 2013, citing a senior government source in Seoul, Yonhap reported that North Korea had “completely withdrawn two mid-range missiles from its east coast.” The next morning, Asahi quoted (sorry, it’s in Japanese) “several Japanese, South Korea, and United States Government officials” stating that North Korea had simply changed the deployment site, not withdrawn the missiles.

It was an amusing turn of events, since a week before on April 29 it was Asahi reporting that North Korea had withdrawn the missiles with Yonhap quoting officials denying the story.

Who the heck knows?

I suppose one possibility is that the North Koreans are—and I am going to use a term of art here—jerking our chain. In mid-April, The Korea Times’ Kang Seung-woo reported that North Korea was “constantly repositioning its transporter erector launchers (TELs) carrying Musudan missiles in South Hamgyeong Province” in order to evade US and South Korean surveillance. “Four or five TELs often shift from one place to another and we see the act as aimed at misleading missile monitors,” a government official told Kang.

Recall that, in the lead up to the December launch of the Unha rocket, North Korea announced that it was extending the launch window by ten days due to an unspecified “technical deficiency.” Yonhap even reported that the rocket had been disassembled on December 11, 2012.

When North Korea launched the rocket a few hours later, all hell broke loose. The Chosun Ilbo, admittedly not the most restrained publication in the free world, described the United States and Washington as “outfoxed by North Korea over the renegade country’s rocket launch,” quoting one rueful official saying, “We saw the trees but failed to see the forest.” Although I thought the circular firing squad was pretty silly—I mean we knew North Korea was going to launch the thing sooner or later—the press picked up the surprise meme. And the North Koreans were delighted with their “big surprise to the world.” As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

So, it is possible the missiles are still there. The late April report that North Korea had withdrawn the Musudans was the result of a poor inference based on signals intelligence—North Korea stopped sending telemetry and other communications from the unit responsible for the launch, leading some analysts to conclude North Korea had packed up the missiles and sent them home. In fact, it seems the missiles were still there. I was shocked to see such a frank discussion of sources and methods in the press by Presidential spokesperson Yoon Chang-jung—yes, the same Yoon Chang-jun who just resigned following allegations he sexually assaulted a 21-year old intern during President Park’s visit to Washington. Let’s hope this reduces the number of South Korean officials involved with leaking and groping.

On the other hand, there are other signs that the tension is slackening. The US Department of Defense had reportedly deployed the Sea Based X-Band Radar (SBX)—which looks like a giant ocean-going golf ball—to track a potential North Korean missile test. The SBX is now back in Hawaii. (How is this for an ambivalent lede in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser: “For whatever it means, the SBX now is back”?) The return of the SBX would seem to suggest a relaxation in tension, although it also possible that the SBX was hoping to get a glimpse of a Musudan test during a previously scheduled check out at sea, then didn’t linger too much past its scheduled return. For what it is worth, Pentagon spokes-bot George Little described the current situation as “a provocation pause,” which is not very reassuring.

What’s a wonk to do? Engage in a little speculation! Heck, there isn’t much else to pass the time while waiting to see if the Musudan works or not. Here are three scenarios for how this may play out. They are offered for free because, well, you get what you pay for.

  • Scenario 1: The North Koreans are just jerking our chain and will conduct the launch sooner or later. In this scenario, the North Koreans are simply practicing their denial and deception tactics—a useful skill in the event they find themselves in a shooting war, with crews trying to launch missiles before US and South Korean strike aircraft find them. Think of this extended period of back-and-forth as a training exercise. If the North Koreans achieve a successful surprise launch, they’ll conclude their deterrent is relatively survivable. If not, well, the mortar teams might get some extra practice. In this scenario, the international press goes crazy when the launch occurs, after having repeatedly reported that the missiles had been withdrawn.
  • Scenario 2: Having pushed the matter reasonably far, the North Koreans have decided not to further alienate the Chinese. US and South Korean officials have been making visits to Beijing in recent weeks reportedly asking Beijing to turn up the pressure on Pyongyang. That may have paid off. Last week, the Bank of China notified North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank (FTB) that it “has closed [the FTB’s] account and has also halted all fund transfers related to this account.” In this scenario, the North Koreans have to weigh the level of provocation carefully against the costs of further irritating the Chinese. Usually, the Chinese only squeeze the North Koreans when there is a clear deliverable such as returning to the bargaining table. The fun aspect of this scenario is that, while the North Koreans comply, they’ll also be looking to even the score with the Chinese. If the Chinese need something from North Korea in the near future, IT IS FIREWORKS TIME. Chinese pressure doesn’t always work. On November 30, 2012, a Chinese delegation arrived in Pyongyang carrying “a letter from China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, which is said to have contained a simple message: Do not launch a ballistic missile.” KCNA released a picture of the Chinese handing over the letter. Then, the next day, KCNA announced the Unha launch. Thanks for the letter, Comrade Xi.
  • Scenario 3: The celestial mechanics in Pyongyang have produced another unpredictable turn in North Korea’s policy. North Korea has a new Defense Minister, replacing another fellow after seven months on the job. This appears to be part of a broader shake-up of the military over the past year that hints at goings on behind the curtain. We are terribly ignorant about North Korea’s internal politics, although we might take comfort in the fact that the machinations of Pyongyang’s elite are probably also internally opaque to the participants as well. In this scenario, for whatever reason the North Korean leadership has decided that they have gone far enough. Pyongyang may have chosen to try something different, either because a different constellation of interests is ascendant at the moment or tension no longer serves the interest of those who pushed it. In this case—unlike the China scenario—the story plays out in response to unseen factors. North Korea resumes its fitful engagement with the West for some undetermined period of time. That either goes well, or more likely goes according the historical pattern: a short period of engagement; a breakdown amid mutual recriminations; an exchange of provocations, threats and demonstrations. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I lean toward the first scenario, although who knows. The pressure from the Chinese may be helpful, and I confess to not being much of a… whatever we call the North Korean analogue to a Kremlinologist. (A Kumsusanologist?) Perhaps Pyongyang has decided not to waste the political impact of a first Musudan flight test until it has something else, such as a KN-08 flight test, ready to go.

Really, it is anyone’s guess, which is what makes it so fun.

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. 

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