North Korea has notified the International Maritime Organization of the United Nations that it plans to launch a satellite sometime between February 8 and February 25. The announcement was not well-received, as it is widely suspected the “satellite launch” will actually be cover for long-range ballistic missile testing.
South Korea, for example, dismissed the satellite story out of hand, bluntly warning the North that a long-range missile test would be “a severe threat against peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula, this region, and the world,” and demanding they immediately cancel the launch. Japan also denounced the planned launch as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and even North Korea’s patrons in China expressed “deep concern.”
The Japanese military went on alert Wednesday, tasked with shooting down any North Korean rocket that might prove a threat, while South Korea warned Pyongyang would pay a “severe price” if it proceeds with the test.
North Korea analyst Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California pointed out satellite images showing increased activity at the Sohae rocket launch site, and noted that the height of the gantry has been increased. The North Korean government has recently tested a new model of a rocket much larger than previous Unha-3 vehicles, dubbed the Unha-9.
“Lewis also noted a now Treasury Department-confirmed report that North Korea and Iran have been cooperating on the development of a new 80-ton rocket booster, raising the possibility of the Unha-9 rocket using the booster as its first stage,” The Korea Times reported.
The U.S. Treasury Department report in question, announced on January 17, declared sanctions connected to Iran’s ballistic missile program, including sanctions on Iranian officials reportedly working with North Korea on that 80-ton rocket booster program. Two of the sanctioned Iranians were described as “critical” to the booster program, and both have traveled to Pyongyang for contract negotiations.
Also of interest: Iranian media report that Iran will launch a Simorgh rocket, similar to North Korea’s Unha, during festivities to mark the Iranian revolution, scheduled to run through February 11.
The Korea Times quoted an article from Gordon Chang at the Daily Beast, who thought North Korea might soon test an even more formidable weapon: the long-range, solid-fueled, mobile KN-08. If such a weapon, or another improved long-range missile variant, ended up in Iranian hands as well, North Korea would be capable of hitting the U.S. West Coast with an ICBM, while Iran would be able to hit the East Coast.
Chang wondered if the North Koreans and Iranians could be so proud of successfully testing such a missile that they dropped all pretense of a “satellite launch,” and whether “a bold statement of that sort might even get the no-pulse John Kerry to do something about North Korea’s troublesome weapons programs.”
“So far, the diplomacy of the secretary of state has yielded nothing in getting China and Russia to support additional UN sanctions on Pyongyang,” Chang complained, noting that such ineffectiveness has made allies such as South Korea uneasy.
One other disturbing detail comes from the Associated Press, which notes that predicting launches by the rogue communist nation has become more difficult due to “the increasingly sophisticated concealing measures North Korea has been developing over the past several years.”
These concealment upgrades include “the construction of an underground railway right up to the launch pad that allows rocket stages to be transported stealthily to the site, possibly from Pyongyang.”
The North Koreans have become very adept at hiding surface activity from surveillance satellites. Our ability to measure the effects of their nuclear bomb tests has been reduced as well, to the point that there is still some question about precisely what they detonated in their latest bomb test.