North Korea launched a salvo of ballistic missiles Saturday, and in the aftermath, U.S.-allied intelligence struggled to sort out the details.
The South Korean military initially claimed there was only one projectile, but it later adjusted its assessment to “several” unidentified projectiles. Japanese officials suggested that North Korea fired rocket artillery, not missiles. U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) concluded that the North launched three short-range ballistic missiles, but all of them failed. One reportedly exploded shortly after launch, while the other two failed in flight.
PACOM has since changed its assessment, according to Yonhap News Agency.
“As an update to our initial release, the first and third missiles … did not ‘fail in flight,'” explained PACOM spokesman Cdr. David Benham said in a statement. “Rather, they flew approximately 250 kilometers in a northeastern direction. We will continue to work with our interagency partners on a more detailed assessment of this latest launch and we will provide a public update if warranted.”
The U.S. and its allies have run up against these challenges in the past.
When North Korea tested a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile in May, analysts concluded the weapon was a single-stage, liquid-fueled Scud missile variant. PACOM initially identified a ballistic missile launched in early April as a Pukguksong-2, a three-stage, solid-fueled missile based on submarine-launched ballistic missile technology. PACOM later changed its assessment, claiming that the weapon was an older, liquid-fueled Scud, with some observers suspecting that it may have been an extended-range Scud. Evidence suggests North Korea might have been testing its intermediate range ballistic missile, but it remains unclear whether or not that was the case.
Throughout April, there were several instances in which the U.S. and its allies struggled to properly identify North Korean missile technology.
Such inaccuracies are not necessarily the fault of the analysts, but rather, they are byproducts of North Korea’s rapidly-advancing ballistic missile program. The North has tested around half a dozen new weapons systems this year, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that can deliver nuclear payloads to the continental U.S.
The purpose of Saturday’s missile launches is unknown, but the fact that multiple missiles were fired in succession suggests that North Korea is training for war, not testing new missile systems. Such was the case when the North fired off a salvo of extended-range Scud missiles in March, as Pyongyang later claimed that its forces were practicing striking U.S. bases in Japan. North Korea just conducted a massive military drill involving special forces and artillery units training to “wipe out the desperate enemy with various combat methods.”
In training exercises, North Korea typically uses more reliable missiles, which is why news of a three-for-three failure shocked some observers.
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