North Korea seems to have tested its Musudan missile seven times this year, with only a single clear success to show for it. But the North Koreans aren’t simply repeating old failures. And they aren’t taking the slow path to developing a reliable system, with a year or so between each test to analyze the data and make improvements. That has been their practice in the past, and it is what we expected this time once they had one successful flight for the cameras. Instead, they are continuing with an aggressive test schedule that involves, at least this time, demonstrating new operational capabilities. That increases the probability of individual tests failing, but it means they will learn more with each test even if it does result in failure. If they continue at this rate, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile could enter operational service sometime next year–much sooner than had previously been expected.
There are still many unanswered questions about Friday’s test. The US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) reported that the launch had occurred near the city of Kusong and “exploded immediately after launch.” The North Koreans have not broadcast the sort of propaganda imagery that follows their successful tests, so a failed test of some sort is likely. But STRATCOM has been wrong before about exactly what sort of missile is being tested–misidentifying last month’s Scud-ER test as a trio of Nodong missiles. The Musudan is distinctive enough that it’s unlikely anyone with STRATCOM’s capabilities would mistake it for anything else, but we should still treat this report as unconfirmed.
Assuming it is a Musudan, the noteworthy difference for this test is the location. North Korea’s previous Musudan launches have been from sites associated with their Musudan-ri test facility – that’s not a coincidence; “Musudan” is our name for the missile, not theirs, given because we first saw it at Musudan-ri and didn’t have anything better to call it (the DPRK has referred to this missile as “Hwasong-10”). Musudan-ri is where North Korea keeps the engineers and technicians who built these missiles, with all of their laboratories and workshops. These are the people who figured out how to put grid fins on the Musudan when the first four tests tumbled out of control. People you want looking over your shoulder when you are launching an experimental rocket, but can’t count on being available in wartime.
Moving to a roadside near Kusong is like taking the training wheels off the bicycle, seeing if you really have mastered something new. But Kusong is on North Korea’s west coast, near Pyongyang–why such a long move? One possibility is that a west coast launch allows the North Koreans to achieve a longer range without overflying other countries. Previous tests from Musudan-ri were limited to 400 kilometers or so to avoid Japanese airspace; the North Koreans were able to partially compensate for this by using a lofted trajectory, but probably did not demonstrate the missile’s full performance in an operationally realistic manner. From the west coast, launching south, a North Korean missile could fly 3000 kilometers or more before splashing down in the Philippine Sea.
Another possibility is security. Kusong is home to several secure military sites in the province of Pyongyang, the most heavily guarded territory and airspace in North Korea. It is as close to the Musudan’s likely targets as North Korea can get while still remaining safely north of the DMZ, and so well suited to serve as the Musudan’s operational basing area. If the North Koreans were hoping to hide this test from prying eyes, moving from the east coast to the west clearly didn’t do the job for them–STRATCOM watches the whole country by satellite. But we may have just been given a clue as to where North Korea intends to base its operational Musudan force, once the field crews demonstrate that they can launch the things without factory tech support close at hand.
There is a saying in our military that amateurs practice until they get it right, but professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong. The North Koreans have just shown that they can still get it wrong, but they are still practicing. Let’s review the scorecard. Four tests of the original Musudan configuration, all failed. Two tests of a new configuration with stabilizing grid fins, conducted with full engineering support from Musudan-ri, with one success and one partial success. And now one test in the field, a complete failure. Seven launches in seven months–a rate greater than most US strategic missile programs. After a decade of keeping it on the back burner, the North Koreans are clearly committed to the Musudan. Another seven months of training and practice could bring them to a real initial operational capability. We, and STRATCOM, will be watching closely to see when and where the next tests occur.