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North’s weapons not as diverse as it claims they are

Experts, officials say short-range missiles tested were disguised
Sept 17,2019
Eight of the 10 rocket launches by North Korea this year involved the same short-range ballistic missiles disguised to instead look like a variety of different weapons, according to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.

In a ministry document that Rep. Ha Tae-keung, a member of the National Assembly’s defense committee, disclosed on Monday, defense officials in Seoul said all of Pyongyang’s tests from May 2 to Aug. 24 involved a short-range ballistic missile dubbed KN-23 by South Korean and U.S. intelligence, save for one on Aug. 2 and its most recent test on Sept. 10, which involved a new type of rocket artillery piece.

The report directly contradicts official claims on the tests from North Korea, which maintained that the regime had tested at least four varieties of weapons including the KN-23. The other three, according to state media reports, were a new “large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system,” an even larger-caliber multiple rocket launcher and another ballistic missile system akin to the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, or Atacms.

The KN-23 is believed to be a North Korean domestic variant of the Russian-made Iskander missile system that was apparently first displayed at a military parade in February last year. According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff on July 26, a day after the North’s first weapons test in two months, the Iskander-like missiles do not follow the trajectory of ordinary ballistic missiles but are equipped to perform a pull-up maneuver in the dive phase in order to avoid interception by anti-missile systems. Subsequent launches throughout July, August and early September took place in a variety of locations in North Korea, from coast to coast, and showed off different ranges and altitudes for the weapons. State media trumpeted that the country was advancing its conventional weapons capacity by testing a host of new weapons, clearly distinguishing between the types in the terminology used and the photographs it released from the tests.

Yet the South Korean military, which undertook forensic analyses for every one of these tests, claimed almost all of them were short-range ballistic missiles that were likely different variants of the KN-23. In particular, the tactical ballistic weapons similar to the Atacms from Aug. 10 and 16 were effectively the same kind of weapons as the KN-23, the report said.

“North Korea revealed photographs to accompany their launches but in reality the launches did not take place as shown [in the documentation],” said one South Korean military official, implying that the North may have manipulated the photographs to feign a new weapon.

Experts in both South Korea and abroad have also questioned the veracity of the North’s claims based on the data from the launches. Chang Young-keun, an aeronautics professor at the Korean Aerospace University in South Korea, raised suspicion with the fact that North Korea did not broadcast video footage of the launches, adding that it was uncommon for a country to develop four different weapons with similar ranges. Most of the tests, save for two on May 9 and July 25, involved ranges of 450 kilometers (280 miles) or lower, with the minimum being 230 kilometers on Aug. 16.

The South Korean military’s analysis that the supposed Atacms-like missiles from late August were in fact KN-23 missiles was backed up by earlier analysis by Markus Schiller, a German missile researcher at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation. He wrote on his Twitter that the cable raceway - the cable attached to the side of the missile - from the projectile from Aug. 10 and 16 was a feature unique to the Iskander missile.

With diagrams and photos of the North’s missiles to back up his claim, Schiller said there was no room for the North’s Atacms look-alike to have a guidance system attached to it and implied that the photos of the missile from state media may have been stretched to make the missile look like a different weapon from the KN-23. When the photographs’ proportions were corrected, the rockets from both May and Aug. 10 had nearly identical sizes, Schiller showed.

“There’s a good chance that the whole event was staged again,” Schiller wrote on Sep. 4. “Why? Because it’s cheaper than developing a complete Atacms-equivalent missile system. And it seems that analysts tend to fall for their confirmation bias (myself included!), and it feeds the public narrative of miraculous NK missile development capabilities.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK, LEE CHUL-JAE and LEE KEUN-PYUNG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]