Three news items related to North Korea’s nuclear programme have garnered attention in the last two weeks, the first evidence of North Korea’s move to dismantle its missile and rocket engine testing facility at Sohae, alleged evidence coming from the intelligence community, which I see no reason to question, suggesting that North Korea is in the process of assembling one or possibly two Hwasong-15 ICBMs at its missile assembly facility in Sanumdong, and renewed discussion regarding the (alleged) Kangson uranium enrichment site.
I will here limit my remarks to the missile developments, leaving aside for now the matter of Kangson.
Commercial satellite imagery obtained and analysed by Joe Bermudez at 38North covering two specific days, July 20 and July 22, shows substantial progress on the dismantling of the liquid propellent missile and rocket engine test site at Sohae.
This is the facility where North Korea has tested its large LPE engine, i.e. the Paektusan, for the booster of the Hwasong-12 (IRBM), Hwasong-14 (LR-ICBM) and Hwasong-15 (ICBM) missiles. It is also the facility that Kim Jong-un pledged to dismantle during his talks with President Trump at Singapore (but which was not formally pledged in the communique). It has been widely reported that Kim Jong-un pledged to dismantle the LPE test facility at Sohae in exchange for the suspension or termination of joint US and South Korean military exercises. The US and South Korea have suspended the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises planned for August 2018.
The commercial satellite imagery is best divided into two, that being the space launch facilities associated with the launch tower at Sohae and the engine testing facility.
The test stand facility on July 20 shows the rail mounted environmental shelter as having been dismantled, the older fuel and oxidiser bunkers partially razed and the upper portions of the test stand partially dismantled with its panelling fully removed. By July 22 the imagery shows that the test stand superstructure has been completely dismantled leaving only the base which itself is in the process of being removed. There appeared no additional progress on the dismantlement of the older fuel and oxidiser bunkers. In both the July 20 and 22 images the new fuel and oxidiser bunkers and vehicle garage remain fully intact.
An indication of the significance of this is provided by the subsequent news, broken by The Washington Post here, of the alleged assembly of one or two Hwasong-15 ICBMs at Sanumdong. This shows that North Korea continues to produce ICBMs. The connection between these two missile related developments was not commented upon in the reports and analyses that I have seen. The continued assembly of Hwasong-15 ICBMs at Sanumdong in the context of the dismantlement of the large LPE missile/rocket test facility at Sohae demonstrates the high confidence North Korean planners have in the reliability of the Hwasong-15 ICBM.
This week saw news of a failed US Minuteman III ICBM test, with the last test failure in 2011. That would be of concern to US planners, as under the damage expectancy criteria of US strategic nuclear war planning, which is akin to a first strike counterforce nuclear strategy, the reliability of the Minuteman III must be exceedingly high. This is one key reason why they are often flight tested. North Korea would not have a counterforce strategy but still nuclear deterrence to be credible requires confidence in missile reliability. North Korea is showing that it has confidence in the reliability of the Hwasong-15. It is often reported, a point some analysts repeat too, that North Korea has yet to successfully demonstrate that it possesses a functioning reentry vehicle for an ICBM. The assembly activities at Sanumdong strongly suggests otherwise.
This means that the dismantlement of the test stand is not as technically significant as it would be if conducted earlier in the research and production cycle. North Korea has what they regard to be a reliable ICBM for purposes of city busting nuclear deterrence so the dismantling of the engine test stand at Sohae does not erode the augmentation of this capability. Furthermore, what North Korea has done is reversible. It is similar to the closing, not the collapsing, of the test tunnels at Pyongyang’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. The activities at Sohae should not be construed in a nuclear disarmament context.
Furthermore, the assembly activity at Sanumdong is in accord with Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year Address and the April plenary session of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The Sanumdong story tells us something we already know, so really isn’t much by way of news in my opinion.
Politically, whatever might be said at the technical level, the dismantling of the test stand is of significance because it acts as a confidence building measure and so leaves the door ajar for diplomacy directed toward easing tensions on, and over, the Korean peninsula and that includes through other nuclear related dismantlement activities. Although the media has concentrated on the technical limitations nonetheless this political aspect is quite important. I shall return to this, as the evidence of the dismantling process and previous post Singapore satellite imagery of Sohae suggests that the work at Sohae seen on July 20 and 22 began two weeks earlier.
The evidence of some dismantlement at the Sohae space launch facility caught analysts by surprise. That was not expected, as it was thought that North Korean dismantlement activity at Sohae would be limited to the engine test stand associated with missile development. Anything related to the space programme would be left untouched, it was largely assumed. However, the July 20 imagery of the space launch facility showed that the rail mounted processing and transfer facility superstructure had shown signs of early dismantlement. This is where the stages of a rocket are assembled and then transferred to the launch tower. By July 22 the rail mounted transfer and processing facility superstructure had been partially dismantled, however the rail transfer structure remained intact and the concrete pad and exhaust bucket at the base of the launch gantry remains intact too.
What implications might be drawn regarding North Korea’s space programme from this? It’s very hard to tell, and drawing implications is largely educated guess work given the paucity of data. I myself have felt that the dismantling of the rail transfer superstructure, albeit leaving the rail transfer infrastructure intact, is a transparency measure for an upcoming space launch. North Korea has expressed a desire to launch a 1000kg plus satellite to a geostationary orbit this year, possibly September, on one would think a new space launch vehicle dubbed by outsiders the Unha-4. North Korea has also stated an intention to launch a 100kg plus remote Earth monitoring satellite perhaps also on the new “Unha-4.” The observed assembly at Sanumdong could be of the Unha-4. September 9 is the Day of the Founding of the Republic in North Korea.
The Unha-4 could possess a resemblance to the Hwasong-15 hence the transparency measure. This will be needed because an Unha-4 launch will be accompanied by a lot of media bullshit. The problem won’t be at the level of missile early warning and such. When the Paektusan engine was tested in September 2016 North Korea stated that it was for its space programme and possessed a thrust of 80 tonnes. Acceleration analysis of the Hwasong-12 suggested that the booster engine had a thrust of 40 tonnes. It is widely interpreted that a twin chamber Paektusan is what North Korea meant when it cited that 80 tonne figure. The Hwasong-15 booster features two gimballed thrust chambers.
China’s three stage Long March-3 SLV booster, essentially the booster stage of the Long March-2C (4x YF-21C engines), was used by Beijing to launch its first satellites to a geostationary transfer orbit and the booster had a thrust of 2,961kN. The second stage of the Long March-3 also was the second stage of the Long March-2C. The Long March-3 was designed to launch up to 1,500kg payloads to geostationary orbit. The third stage was a cryogenically propelled stage, China’s first, and it possessed a gross mass of 10,500kg and had four small thrust chambers each 44kN in thrust. The Soviet/Russian 2 stage Tsyklon SLV booster stage was based on the RD-251 engine of the R-36 ICBM and the booster produced 2,640kN of thrust. The Tsyklon was designed to deliver satellites to low earth orbit. The L87-5 engine of the Titan II ICBM/SLV had a thrust of 1,913kN which is not far off from the Hwasong-15 (which has often been compared to the Titan II). The interesting thing here is that an Unha-4 with a similar booster performance profile to the Long March-3 and Tsyklon SLV would require a three twin chamber profile, much like the RD-251.
That is not to say that the Hwasong 12, 14 and 15 booster engines are directly derived from the RD-250/RD-251. One might argue, if judging in terms of performance characteristics and mission profile, that the Tsyklon and the Long March-2C booster are of the same class which might well be where we would also park the Unha-4. We like to classify rockets, missiles, and rocket/missile stages in categories bounded by states, but that is a political demarcation. This could suggest to us that North Korean planners deliberately sought to develop an Unha-4 booster in the same class as the Long March-2C and the Tsyklon. Hence similarity of physical performance, mission profile and of course nature might have something to do with observed similarities as widely discussed regarding the RD-250/251 and the Paektusan engine. I had suggested this as a hypothesis when the RD-250 story regarding North Korea first broke.
Both China and India’s first generation (in Delhi’s case first indigenously launched) high earth orbit satellites were launched with rockets featuring cryogenically propelled third stages. I am not aware of any indication that North Korea is going down this road for the Unha-4. One would not expect North Korea to test small engines at Sohae. The Taesung Machine Factory/Chamjin Missile Factory does have a facility for testing small engines. For example, in 2016 a Scud engine strapped to the test stand was used to generate high temperature exhaust gases to test the ablative nosecone of a reentry vehicle. Satellite images in 2016 and 2017 showed upgrades to the test facility. I am not in possession of any satellite imagery suggesting that Taesung could be used to test small cryogenically propelled engines nor of any imagery or information that North Korea has facilities to develop such propellants. North Korea could attain a very similar weight-to-thrust ratio for an Unha-4 third stage using 4 vernier engines.
At any rate, the key point here is this. I think the innovative future of North Korea’s space programme lies not so much in large liquid propelled engines, best tested at Sohae, but in smaller engines for the upper stages of its space launch rockets and, of course, in the payloads. Taesung could be a place to support such further small engine developments.
It has been suggested that North Korea might launch a satellite to either low or high earth orbit from a TEL. That is certainly possible. Russia has launched satellites to low earth orbit from a TOPOL (SS-25) ICBM from a TEL. Other states have done such things too. I am not so sure in the North Korean case. Firstly, the space programme for North Korea is in part, just like for us, a means to demonstrate a leap toward modernity. A launch from a tower is so much more sexy and spacey than a TEL. Secondly, if the Unha-4 is based on the Hwasong-15 but features larger dimensions then the question becomes does North Korea have a TEL big enough to launch it.
But to return to Sanumdong. That story was broken by The Washington Post (linked above) and the article doing so had this line
During a summit with Trump in June, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to a vaguely worded pledge to “work toward” the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula. But since then, North Korea has made few tangible moves signalling an intention to disarm
That paragraph conflates “denuclearisation” with “disarmament.” North Korea has pledged to work toward denuclearisation both at Singapore and in the Panmunjom Declaration. However, disarmament is not the same concept as denuclearisation. Let’s say the US adopts a nuclear no first use pledge but everything else remains the same. That would be described as lowering the salience placed upon nuclear deterrence in Washington’s overall strategic posture but not one bomb or missile would be dismantled. That would be a type of denuclearisation, but it wouldn’t be a type of disarmament. That’s essentially the difference between these two concepts, but they are very often falsely conflated in the Korean context. That being the case North Korea in its missile related activities cannot be accused of showing little sign of an intention to disarm, because it never stated nor signalled such an intention either at Singapore or Panmunjom.
It should be stressed that North Korea argues that the US is not living up to its pledges at Singapore, that the suspension of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises is reversible and does not include larger military exercises to come later or exercises with Japan. South Korea continues to develop its kill chain strategy and the capabilities meant to implement it.
Most see the dismantlement activities at Sohae in the context of the failed Pompeo talks in Pyongyang. Recall the point made by Bermudez regarding the timeline of the start of the dismantlement process. I have a different hypothesis. That is, North Korea began dismantlement at Sohae because Pyongyang was concerned at the lack of tangible progress in rapprochement with South Korea. Denuclearisation was placed at the bottom of the Panmunjom Declaration, surely no accident. The Panmunjom Declaration put greater emphasis on the two Koreas themselves working toward achieving peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. The pledge of denuclearisation is necessary because the US is South Korea’s security ally, and Seoul must appear to take denuclearisation seriously for that reason and for domestic political and economic reasons as well. Such political realities are surely well understood in Pyongyang. The failure of the Pompeo visit to North Korea on July 6 had the effect of corralling Washington’s Asian allies under its wing. The dismantling of the Sohae engine testing facility not only meets a pledge made at Singapore but it provides political space for South Korea to make tangible progress toward improving and deepening ties with North Korea. Denuclearisation, CVID, FFVD, or whatever one wants to call it is an American not a Korean obsession.
The United States continues to insist upon CVID (complete, verified, irreversible, dismantlement) prior to sanctions relief and prior to formally ending the state of war with North Korea. That is not a serious negotiating position and so in substance the US position remains pretty much on par with the policy pursued from Bush onward. CVID was developed by Washington hardliners to prevent diplomacy, and continued insistence upon it is a means of using the obsession with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities to forestall peace on the Korean peninsula. The western media’s obsession with North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, and here we must also include the liberal arms control community, plays a crucial enabling role. What is happening on the Korean peninsula is being viewed in the global public sphere through the lens of America’s obsession and interest. One would think that we would primarily be concerned with what Koreans think about Korea, and how Koreans think we might best help them to achieve their vision for Korea. But no, it is America’s obsession that matters before all else.
But even lowering nuclear danger isn’t really Washington’s concern. The fact of North Korean nuclear deterrence means that denuclearisation, that is the lowering of nuclear danger, can proceed as North Korea feels it should; a step-by-step process of like-for-like action that lowers the salience of nuclear deterrence on the Korean peninsula. That’s just a reflection of reality, nothing more and nothing less. Using military means to achieve CVID will lead to nuclear war. Using CVID to continue “maximum pressure” strangulation of North Korea risks nuclear war. It thereby follows that Washington is concerned with something other than lowering nuclear danger.
All the attention hitherto has been focused on North Korea’s intentions. Perhaps it might do to pay some attention to Washington’s intentions too.