They don’t look anything alike.

Well, this is irritating. David Sanger and Thom Shanker have published a really interesting article that is irredeemably fouled up by their profound confusion about North Korean missiles.

The lede of the article is that “North Korea is moving mobile missile launchers around the country, some carrying a new generation of powerful rocket…” What I presume this means is that the US IC has satellite images of shiny new TELs at missile units around North Korea, which is usually a sign that new missiles are being deployed.

What kind of new missile, however, is impossible to fathom because Sanger and Shanker conflate two different missiles — North Korea’s KN-08 ICBM and the Musudan IRBM (~3,000 km range). What mess!

Here are the important parts of the article:

The discovery by American intelligence agencies that North Korea is moving mobile missile launchers around the country, some carrying a new generation of powerful rocket, has spurred new assessments of the intentions of the country’s young new leader, Kim Jong-un, who has talked about economic change but appears to be accelerating the country’s ability to attack American allies or forces in Asia, and ultimately to strike across the Pacific.

The new mobile missile, called the KN-08, has not yet been operationally deployed, and American officials say it may not be ready for some time. But the discovery that the mobile units have already been dispersed around the country, where they can be easily hidden, has prompted the White House, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to reassess whether North Korea’s missile capabilities are improving at a pace that poses a new challenge to American defenses.


The more immediate mystery for the administration, however, is what North Korea may intend with the intermediate-range KN-08, which was first shown off by the North in a military parade last April. At the time, many analysts dismissed it as a mock-up. In fact, it has never been test-flown. But parts, including the rocket motors, have been tested separately, according to officials familiar with the intelligence reports, who described the missile developments on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the assessments.

Officials familiar with North Korean missile technology say the KN-08 weapon is designed with a range capable of striking South Korea, Japan and parts of Southeast Asia — although with uncertain accuracy.

Let’s tease these statements apart.

The KN-08 ICBM.  In April 2012, North Korea paraded what appeared to be a multi-stage ICBM through Kim Il Sung Square. Secretary Gates had gone out of his way in 2011 to mention such a missile, directly calling it a road-mobile ICBM. It was this missile that was carried by Chinese TELs, exported in apparent violation of Security Council sanctions.  And it was this missile that was the subject of a debate on this blog about whether it was a fake or not.

This is as good a time as any to plug three papers — an assessment of the KN-08 prepared by reader John Schilling, Nick Hansen’s contribution at 38North and Markus Schiller’s new RAND monograph, Characterizing the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat.

The Musudan IRBM.  Two years prior, in 2010, North Korea paraded a new intermediate-range mobile missile through Kim Il Sung Square.  The so-called Musudan just happens to be “intermediate range” and “capable of striking South Korea, Japan and parts of Southeast Asia.” (NASIC described it as a one-stage IRBM with a 2,000 mile or ~3,200 km range, which perfectly corresponds to “ parts of Southeast Asia.” A Wikileaked US cable to MTCR states put the range at a bit more with a smaller payload — 4,000 km with a 500 kg payload.) Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker have their doubts about this one too, but I am rather more convinced.

The two missiles have some things in common — neither has been flight-tested — but, as Sanger and Shanker were told, there have long been reports of ground-testing for Musudan (SS-N-6 type) engines that might power one or both missiles. (I wrote a very long post on the Musudan, including claims of static engine testing, in a post titled, Origins of the Musudan IRBM.)

I suppose the simplest explanation is that North Korea has deployed the Musudan IRBM, not the KN-08, but that Sanger and Shanker simply confused the two missiles.  This is such a simple story, though, that it is hard to imagine Sanger would screw it up this badly.  And South Korean officials have long asserted that the Musudan is deployed, even though the US IC has been more cautious.  How the KN-08 got into all this, I cannot fathom.

On the other hand, perhaps it is KN-08 units that have been seen in the field.  In this case, Sanger and Shanker simply misstated the range of the missile. That requires the least rewrititing of the original text, but it requires Sanger and Shanker to bury the lede — RED KOREAN MOBILE MISSILE CAN STRIKE U.S.  I can’t imagine they would let that one pass unremarked.

Finally, it’s possible that the IC has concluded the KN-08 range is simply not much better than the Musudan and isn’t an ICBM at all.  That also requires burying the lede: U.S. REDUCES ESTIMATES OF NORTH KOREAN MISSILE.

Really, it’s hard to tell.  I bet there is a story in there somewhere, but I can’t fathom what it is.