North Korea has moved a missile to an east coast launch-site and is likely to test fire it — allowing the regime in Pyongyang to save face if it is stepping down from its confrontation with the United States.
“As a rule, when the North Koreans allow a missile to be detected, other than in a parade, they launch it,” said retired military analyst and veteran Korea-watcher John McCreary.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said Thursday North Korea had moved the intermediate-range missile to a launch site on its east coast, likely for some kind of test or show firing.
Adding to the likelihood of a missile launch: The birthday of the North’s founder Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the current ruler Kim Jong-Un, is less than two weeks away and is a national holiday often marked by some kind of military demonstration, analysts say.
“Readers should expect a launch,” said Mr. McCreary. Apart from any celebration or demonstration, he said, the move would allow North Korea “to test U.S. missile defense capabilities, reaction times and crisis management discipline.”
But the capabilities of the missile, thought to be a Musudan, the Korean version of the Soviet-built SSN-6, are open to question.
The Musudan is thought to have a range of up to 2,500 miles which would mean it is just able to reach the U.S. Pacific island territory of Guam, but the Koreans have never tested the missile, and some analysts have doubts about its accuracy and other capabilities.
But Mr. McCreary doesn’t share them.*
The SSN-6 “has been test fired more than any ballistic missile in history,” he said, “The Soviets made lots [of them] and were continuously performing reliability tests. It has one of the best liquid fueled, high energy engines ever designed by anyone.”
McCreary says that the missile’s single purpose “from design to production was to be a nuclear weapons carrier.”
However, some analysts doubt whether North Korea has surmounted the considerable engineering challenges involved in miniaturizing a nuclear weapon so that it can be fitted in a missile warhead.
“It’s extremely unlikely they have a nuclear missile which could reach the United States,” said Gary Samore, until recently the top nuclear nonproliferation expert on President Barack Obama’s national security staff.
Mr. Samore told Reuters he believed Pyongyang’s threats against the United States are “probably all bluster.”
He added that it would be “suicidal” for North Korea to attack the United States — and that Pyongyang knows it.
Mr. McCreary suggested that a missile test, falling into international waters, might be a way for the North Koreans to back away from confrontation without losing face.
“A missile that splashed into the ocean without starting a general war is a way for the North Koreans to back down,” he said.