On April 28, 2017, in another blustering threat against the United States, North Korea “test” launched a single Hwasong-12/KN17 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from Pukchang Airfield in Sunchon City, South Pyongan Province.
This is an account of what happened to the missile.
Ankit Panda and Dave Schmerler report for The Diplomat, Jan. 3, 2018, that the missile failed shortly after launch and crashed into the populated city of Tokchon, causing considerable damage to a complex of industrial or agricultural buildings.
According to a U.S. government source with knowledge of North Korea’s weapons programs who spoke to The Diplomat, the missile never flew higher than 43.5 miles (70 km). Its first stage engines failed after approximately one minute of powered flight, resulting in catastrophic failure. The location of the missile’s eventual impact can be independently corroborated in commercially available satellite imagery from April and May 2017.
Liquid-fuel missiles like the Hwasong-12 IRBM, which use a highly volatile combination of hypergolic propellant and oxidizer (meaning that the two agents ignite spontaneously on contact), can produce massive explosions depending on how they fail. In this case, with the missile having survived its descent following an engine failure, it is likely that the facility at Tokchon experienced a large explosion upon impact. It’s impossible to verify if the incident caused any loss of life and, given the time of day the test occurred and the location of the impact, it may be likely that few, if any, casualties resulted from the incident.
However, as the Google Earth imagery of the incident demonstrates, the Tokchon facility is located adjacent to what appear to be residential and commercial buildings. A slight difference in trajectory may could have resulted in an even more catastrophic accident over a populated region.
In 2017, North Korea has introduced new sites for missile testing, arguably to demonstrate the flexibility of its Strategic Rocket Force. It has even carried out ballistic missile launches from a restricted area at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, which also serves as the country’s primary civil aviation facility and the entrypoint for most non-Chinese foreign visitors to North Korea. The potential for similar accidents occurring over Pyongyang, the country’s capital, or other populated regions remains high, especially with untested systems.
The April 28 failed missile launch was the third attempted flight-test of this new type of intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Hwasong-12, it would later emerge, was the fundamental building block for the Hwasong-14/KN20 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) revealed later in the year. Despite the three failures in April, the Hwasong-12 would see its first successful flight-test just weeks later on May 14.
Since August 2017, North Korea has started launching ballistic missiles over Japanese territory — twice successfully with the Hwasong-12, the reentry vehicles splashing down in the northern Pacific Ocean, clear of Japanese territory. But future successes are not guaranteed and should a future North Korean missile overflying fail at the wrong moment during its powered flight phases, its trajectory may come to resemble an attack on Japan. Even with a dummy payload, an incident like that could spark a serious crisis in Northeast Asia. North Korea’s missile tests, which violate its obligations under United Nations Security Council resolutions, come with no formal warning or notices to airmen, leaving regional states and the United States to their own devices in interpreting Pyongyang’s intentions once the engines are ignited.
Another problem is that not only has North Korea tested a massive variety of strategic weaponry, it has done so from a more diverse list of launch sites — what the U.S. intelligence community calls “ballistic missile operating areas” — than ever before. North Korea’s missiles are no longer sitting ducks at known “launch pads,” as a result of the proliferation of newly constructed hangers, tunnels, and storage sites. There are facilities similar to Pukchang Airfield across the country. All of which thwart U.S. and allied attempts at potential preemption and prevention.
Although missiles like the Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, and the new behemoth, the Hwasong-15, all use liquid fuels and must be fueled prior to launch, U.S. and allied intelligence have at best a couple hours to detect launch preparations. Though risky, North Korea could also fuel these missiles in a horizontal configuration within their hardened storage sites and use its road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers to launch them with fewer pre-launch signatures.
As North Korea’s production of now-proven IRBMs and ICBMs continues, it will have a large and diversified nuclear force spread across multiple hardened sites, leaving the preventive warfighter’s task close to impossible if the objective is a comprehensive, disarming first strike leaving Pyongyang without retaliatory options. The time is long gone to turn the clock back on North Korea’s ballistic missile program and its pre-launch basing options.
Lastly, the Trump Administration insider Q Anon has hinted at the involvement of Barack Obama and the CIA in North Korea. Here’s a video on this intrigue: