North Korean soldiers guard the Unha-3 rocket at the Sohae Satellite Launch Station in Tongchang-Ri in 2012. Photo: AFP

North Korean activity at two of its missile sites has been in sharp global focus after the failure of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and United States President Donald Trump to reach an agreement at their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month.

The two sites are the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, used to test rocket motors as well as launch orbital objects, and the Sanumdong Second Academy of Natural Sciences, thought to be the main developer of ballistic missiles.

Despite considerable opinion and speculation about what the activity means, agreement on its consequences is elusive.

Explanations abound

Some view the activity at the two sites as mere posturing by North Korea in order to indicate resolve. It could also be action taken to appease some of the North’s elites and military who likely do not want accommodation with the US. Regardless, in drawing attention to intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, that can reach much of the United States, North Korea is rattling its saber again.

Another perspective suggests an impending missile launch of some sort, either a satellite attempt or an ICBM test. However, activity at Sanumdong is not necessarily related to the reconstruction of the facility at Sohae, and an ICBM launch can be carried out anywhere using a transporter-erector-launch (TEL) vehicle and does not require the facilities at Sohae. Even so, the test of a rocket motor would be at Sohae.

Yet another outlook surmises that the activity is preparation for a satellite launch. The space launch vehicle would be assembled at Sanumdong and then transported to Sohae where past satellite launches have taken place. Problematically, the rockets that boost satellites into the stratosphere are dual-use technology that also work for ICBMs.

Looking for the probable

Not all explanations are of equal probability. An analysis of each is appropriate.

The bluff or a military raspberry to the US. The probability of this is low to medium, for unless Washington takes the bait and responds with a resumption of hostile rhetoric or a return to large-scale military exercises that justify Kim’s position, the North would have little or nothing to show for it. This sort of posturing may not impress its domestic audience.

A concession to elites and military. The probability of pandering to the elites and the military is medium to low since Kim does need the support of both groups as the summit has left him empty-handed.

An ICBM launch. The probability of actually test-launching an ICBM is low since that would undoubtedly bring additional US sanctions – and quite probably compel both China and Russia back into stricter sanctions enforcement out of frustration with Pyongyang. Further, there would be no need to transport any of the North’s existing ICBMs to Sohae for that.

Satellite launch. The probability for a satellite launch is medium to high and Sohae is the facility for that. North Korea has always claimed it is within its sovereign right to conduct peaceful space exploration.

The case for a satellite

It has been known for more than a year that Pyongyang has plans to launch at least one satellite, and now would be an auspicious time.

But concluding that a satellite launch is nothing more than that fails to consider the military intelligence such an event could provide. A satellite launch could be cover to test the North’s re-entry vehicle – a critical component of an ICBM that is used to protect the warhead when it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere.

This is particularly important, as it is unclear at this time whether Pyongyang has mastered the technology to protect a nuclear warhead during the stresses encountered during re-entry. If a launch purposefully failed to place an object in orbit and its ersatz satellite, loaded with sensors, fell back to earth, it would be an excellent test of the North’s re-entry vehicle.

Successfully placing a satellite into orbit would also be a significant achievement – and a powerful bargaining chip. Positioned in an asynchronous orbit – one that covers different parts of the earth during succeeding orbits – a North Korean satellite could gather valuable targeting information regarding the United States and its military facilities throughout the world.

And a geosynchronous orbit – more difficult to attain and requiring a more powerful launch vehicle – could constantly provide invaluable in-flight guidance to ICBMs on their flights to their targets. The importance of such an accomplishment would be huge.

Why now?

Predicting such events is impossible, but Pyongyang often schedules events around important dates. The upcoming birthdate of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of Kim Jong Un, on April 15 presents just such an opportunity.

In view of the failed February Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, details of which are only now becoming known to the average citizen in the North, good tidings such as a successful launch could be used to justify continued possession of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery.

It would support the position that, even as Kim says he must focus on the economy, nuclear weapons indeed remain the North’s “treasured sword.”

Moreover, the fact that the Sohae facility – thought to have been at least partially dismantled as promised by Kim in the first summit last June in Singapore – was being resurrected prior to the latest Kim-Trump summit shows a premeditated intent.

None of this is any guarantee that there will be a satellite launch on April 15. However, of all the explanations as to why the North is presently engaged in missile-related activity, this deduction looks feasible.

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