North Korea: Four times unlucky, or just foolish?

North Korea recently did something it has never done before: it tried to launch a new missile four times in two months, and failed every time. At least once they even destroyed the launch platform, only to try again from a new site.

The Musudan missile isn’t really “new.” 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 appeared 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 10 years, the North Koreans apparently never tested the Musudan to see if it would work. Now they know 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 during the 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 managed to get their rockets working by the third or fourth try.

A test flight of the Musudan was long overdue, but repeating the attempt three times so soon after the first catastrophic failure can only be described as foolish and desperate. There was little chance of success no matter how many rockets they launched, and if by pure dumb luck one of them had worked there would have been little chance of understanding why that one worked where the others didn’t. 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.

But if the intent is unclear, any North Korean test also raises the question of capability: Can they blow us up with nuclear missiles now? The answer is pretty clearly that they can’t blow up anybody but themselves with Musudan missiles. It is possible that they will retrench and give their engineers time to fix the problems, and 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 four rapid tests that were almost certainly doomed to fail. The Musudan program is most likely over, or soon will be.

This should not be cause for complacency. Somewhere in North Korea is a group of people so desperate and foolish as to have launched four missiles that couldn’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 they’ve shown us pictures of ground test activity that suggests they aren’t rushing into premature flight tests but are taking the time to do it right. They have also been working on a small ballistic-missile submarine, and a new solid-fuel intermediate-range missile. These have the potential to be more capable and versatile systems than the Musudan would have been, but they aren’t likely to enter service before 2020.

Today, all we have to worry about are the thousand or so short- and medium-range missiles with which North Korea could attack targets in South Korea and Japan, and the dozen or so nuclear warheads they maybe 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.

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