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US Experts Dispute Russia’s Claim That North Korea's New Missile Not an ICBM

A man walks past a TV screen showing a local news program about North Korea's reported firing of an ICBM, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, July 5, 2017.
A man walks past a TV screen showing a local news program about North Korea's reported firing of an ICBM, at Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, July 5, 2017.

Russia’s assessment of North Korea’s latest missile launch puzzles many U.S. experts, who say the Kremlin "mischaracterized" the nature of Pyongyang's test, either as a result of technical flaws or possibly for political reasons.

According to Russian state-run media, Moscow's U.N. mission submitted a letter to the U.N. Secretariat that described the North Korean projectile fired on July 4 as an intermediate-range rocket. That assessment is at odds with U.S., South Korean and Japanese findings that classified the Hwasong-14 as a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

China has not yet commented details of the rocket involved.

“A Voronezh-type radar station deployed in the Irkutsk region monitored the launch of the Hwasong-14 medium-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from North Korea, which flew a distance of 510 km in 14 minutes, reaching an altitude of 535 km, before landing in the Sea of Japan,” the Russian letter stated.

It followed a fierce U.N. Security Council debate last week, during which Moscow challenged Washington’s reference of the missile as an ICBM. This derailed efforts to reach a consensus among 15 council members on a press statement condemning North Korea for the launch.

Describing the use of a long-range rocket launch as "a clear and sharp military escalation," U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasted the Russian claim at the emergency U.N. meeting, telling Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov, "If you need any sort of intelligence to let you know that the rest of the world sees this is an ICBM, I'm happy to provide it."

North Korea’s official news agency KCNA identified the launch as the regime’s first test of an ICBM. It said the missile was fired at a steep angle and reached an altitude of 2,802 km and traveled 933 km during its 39-minute flight into the Sea of Japan.

Extrapolating from the North Korean data, many analysts agreed the Hwasong-14 could, if launched at a standard angle, travel up to 8,000 km - a range long enough to reach Alaska. The Pentagon defines an ICBM as having a range greater than 5,500 km.

“This is so baffling that Russia would have such a different assessment of the Hwasong-14 launch,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told VOA's Korean Service. “It's almost as though Russia saw a totally different launch or made up the numbers.”

The only possibility for a country geographically close to North Korea to conclude it was a shorter-range rocket would be a technical flaw or “human failure,” said Fitzpatrick, adding: “In either case, it's actually worrisome that Russia apparently has so badly mischaracterized this launch.”

Fitzpatrick said it Russian radar may simply have missed the launch, or did not track the missile's flight completely.

John Schilling, a missile technology specialist with 38 North, a North Korea monitoring website run by Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), brought up another possibility. Given that the Hwasong-14 was a two-stage rocket, Russian monitors may have detected only the rocket used for the missile’s first stage - believed to be a well-known KN-17 liquid-fueled missile - which Schilling said “would have reached the lower altitude and traveled a shorter distance.”

Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, also believes the missile’s second stage may have escaped the notice of Russian trackers.

“The second stage separates, fires and goes up to this almost 3,000 km height, but if the Russians didn't see the second stage for some reason and just saw the first stage, that would only go up to sort of the height that they report,” he said.

Russia’s failure to track the Hwasong-14’s second stage could be explained by a lack of “good sensor systems as close to North Korea as the U.S. does have, presumably in South Korea, that are much closer to the action,” McDowell added.

He said Russia's early-warning systems to detect missile launches have been deteriorating for several years. “A lot of their early warning satellites have been retired, and their radars, not all of them are in operation, and so this may reflect the aging of the Russian technical capability,” the scientist said.

Another North Korea expert, Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corporation, said while Russia’s assessment could be a result of technical shortcomings, it seems more plausible that Moscow’s political motivations may have influenced its missile report.

“In theory, Russia could be trying to play down the North Korean assertion that it did happen and that therefore [leader] Kim Jong Un accomplishes his objective,” Bennett said. “So Russia could be taking a position against North Korea … as well as acting against the U.S. It's kind of a poor play by the Russians.”

Fitzpatrick shares this view as Russia historically tends to minimize North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities, “so as not to play into what is sometimes an excessive sense of threat perceived by the United States.”

“I think it's fair to say that Russia has a political motivation to assess that it was not an intercontinental ballistic missile because Russia does not want the United States to have any further excuse to expand its ballistic missile defense capabilities,” Fitzpatrick said.