The other day I joked that I am the Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation program which means, lately, I am the Director of the North Korean Nonproliferation Program. Yeesh.

Many of you have noticed that Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker’s paper on the mockups garnered a significant amount of press attention, including a nice story in the New York Times by Choe Sang-hun with Bill Broad, who took a break from his battle with the Yoga-Industrial Complex.

I think most people agree that the missiles are mock-ups, but that raises a second question:  Are the mockups “complete fantasy missiles,” as Markus and Robert argue, or are they indicators of what’s to come?

I have to say, I lean toward the latter view.  The missiles are fakes, but they may be real fakes — that is to say genuine indications of North Korea’s technical path toward an ICBM.

Consider the title of Schiller and Schmucker”s article — “Dog and Pony Show.” This was a paradeOf course it was a dog-and-pony show.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from mockups.

The insular little community of open-source missile modelers is busy sending emails to-and-fro on the subject.  I can’t possibly provide a comprehensive account of everything that has clogged up my inbox.  Still, I wanted to share some of the more interesting observations.

1.

It is normal to make mockups, sometimes called “missile simulators,” before building the real thing. This, for example, is a mockup of a Minuteman missile on a test-stand.

In 1994, the United States intelligence community spotted two “missile simulators” — you know, mockups.  Those two mockups were bestowed the names Taepodong 1 and 2.  As it turns out, those two missile simulators fairly represented the missiles that North Korea would test fire in 1998 and — after abandoning the 1999-2006 launch moratorium — in 2006, 2009, and 2012.

Here is how Barbara Starr described the Taepodong 2:

Last month US intelligence detected what is described as a new ‘missile simulator’ at the Sanum Dong R&D Facility. Reports of a simulator apparently refer to a hardware mock-up detected by intelligence satellites.

The missile has been given the provisional designation Taepo Dong-2 (TD-2). It is a two-stage missile. The mock-up was 32 m long, consisting of an 18 m by 2.4 m diameter first stage and a 14 m by 1.3 m second stage. The second stage appeared to be similar to a No Dong-1 missile with a rounded nosecone, while the fatter lower stage is around the size of a 1970s-vintage Chinese CSS-2/DF-3/ Dongfeng-3 IRBM propellant section.

The dimensions turned out to be revealing — although the 2.4 m first stage would house a cluster of Nodong engines, rather than a DF-3 as Starr reported, and North Korea would replace the Nodong-based second stage with an R-27  (SS-N-6).  But the missiles seen in 1994 (as depicted by Jane’s at left) are clearly forebears of the missiles depicted by the US intelligence community in 2008 (right). Ted Postol estimated the first stage of the Unha (better known as the TD-2) as 2.4 m in diameter and 16 m long.  The simulator wasn’t exactly right, but one could learn a lot about where the DPRK was headed from looking at it closely.

It is plausible, to me, that North Korea created the mockups on parade as part of a program to develop real missiles that look more or less exactly like them.  Many have observed that the missiles in the parade were numbered.  Perhaps it was a coincidence, but many of the instances of poor workmanship were more visible in the units with lower numbers. If the mockups were numbered sequentially, there is a hint of increasing realism that suggests these were more than just parade dummies.

2.

Although North Korea has not flight-tested the Musudan IRBM, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center lists it as deployed, with fewer than 50 launchers.  That’s strange — the intelligence community has a special term for missiles that are flight-tested but not deployed (“initial threat availability”) but not the other way around.

One possibility is that North Korea has deployed the IRBM based solely on static engine tests on conducted on test stands.  South Korean press reports describe at least one static test of a long-range in November 2011 and another four in early 2012, while US officials regularly noted the continuation of static engine testing during North Korea’s 1999-2006 launch moratorium.

I am certain the United States would not settle for static tests alone, but perhaps the North Koreans see the situation differently.  Still, for those who doubt the existence of the new ICBM, it is difficult to static-test an engine that does not exist.

3.

There is a huge discussion about what sort of technological path these ICBMs might represent, if any.  Allow me to articulate just one view, which I suspect is the view of at least some people in the intelligence community.  North Korea imported Scud missiles from Egypt, then proceeded to build an entire missile program on this technology.  North Korean enlarged the Scud into the Nodong, stuck a Scud on top of a Nodong (Taepodong 1) and then clustered some Nodong engines with another Nodong on top (Taepodong 2.)

Now, North Korea has imported the R-27 (SS-N-6) — a better baseline technology that uses more energetic propellants: unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH) and nitrogen tetroxide (N2O4).

North Korea has apparently reconfigured the Taepodong 2, sticking an SS-N-6 on top of a cluster of Nodong engines, topped by a smaller SS-N-6-derived third stage (vernier engines only, it seems).  North Korea also enlarged the SS-N-6 much as it enlarged the Scud, creating the Musudan IRBM.  North Korea may try to replicate the approach it took to Scuds, just with a better technology.  So, North Korea may try to either cluster SS-N-6 engines or stack SS-N-6-derived stages on top of one another.  One of the big debates we are having now is about what North Korea might be able to squeeze into the 2 m first stage of the new ICBM.

You’re invited to participate, in the comments or offline at jeffrey [at] armscontrolwonk.com.