Editor's Note: The following is an internal Stratfor document designed to provide high-level guidance on increased North Korean rocket and missile activity to our analysts. This document is not a forecast but rather a series of guidelines for understanding and evaluating events, as well as suggestions on areas for focus.
The pace and scope of North Korean missile and rocket launches over the past few months have notably intensified from normal training cycles. North Korea has tested several missile systems at several launch sites, sometimes testing the same system at different locations, other times testing several systems at the same location.
Much has been made of the political symbolism of North Korea's launches. Some analysts highlight the timing: Tests have come just before Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea, or at the same time as U.S.-South Korean defense exercises. Others assert an internal political purpose, whether because of the young Kim Jong Un's need to prove his bona fides to the older military leadership, or the North Korean leadership's need to show strength domestically in the face of continued weak economic performance. Furthermore, some suggest the tests are part of a typical North Korean pattern, whereby Pyongyang ratchets up tensions in anticipation of talks so it can ease back to the status quo in return for economic incentives.
But in the search for symbolism, masked by the common perception that the North Korean leadership is either crazy or naturally belligerent, lies perhaps an underexplored avenue. Like most other countries in the world, North Korea may primarily be carrying out the tests as part of an accelerated technological program designed to improve its weapons systems. Already in the tests there are suggestions that Pyongyang has improved the accuracy, the timeliness of launches and the range of some systems. The North Koreans have also carried out drills in various locations in short order, perhaps as a way to test the readiness of its armed forces.
There is almost certainly some political messaging in the tests, or at least a clear awareness of how the international community will interpret them. However, if North Korea's recent actions are focused on a crash program to bring the country's missile systems up to more modern standards, the question arises as to why the North would determine this is both necessary and possible now. Pyongyang may perceive emerging threats in its regional security environment because of the increased frictions between China and Japan, or even the political frictions between itself and China. Pyongyang could have also reviewed its defensive capabilities and found them lacking, or observed the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi armed forces or even the Ukrainian army in recent months and decided it needs to refocus on its own training and capabilities. There are reports, for example, that North Korea has reduced the number of soldiers sent for agricultural service this year, suggesting that more military personnel remain available for training.
Rather than speculating endlessly, however, there are several items worth looking at regarding North Korea's tests and behavior this year. Looking deeper into these issues could give us greater insight into what is going on inside Pyongyang and whether the North Koreans are moving into a new behavior pattern — a potential development that could have significant repercussions throughout the region and beyond.
- Although there are always questions about the status of the North Korean economy, there are some anomalies in the current situation that warrant additional scrutiny. Current estimates place the cost of North Korean missile and rocket tests at around $200 million so far this year. Even if that number is inaccurate, the North is still throwing a lot of metal and rockets into the ocean — rockets it cannot use again. Traditionally, North Korea has carried out few tests of its major missile systems, deploying them to the field before final testing was complete not only to accelerate their introduction but also mask their deficiencies.
- Two main factors do not seem to make sense in terms of the relationship between North Korea's military cycle and its assumed economic difficulties. With the reduction of soldiers sent to agricultural duty, the increased scope and pace of the training cycle must be having some impact on North Korean finances and budgets, yet Pyongyang is continuing along this path. Furthermore, North Korea is reported to have imported almost no oil from China over the past several months, yet there appears to be little sign of new stress on internal economic activity. Pyongyang has carried out numerous military drills requiring additional fuel and is restarting domestic commercial air routes, primarily for Chinese tourists, which also requires additional fuel. Sources in China suggest there are still many informal channels — intentionally overlooked by Chinese authorities — to deliver oil, and there may be more refined product crossing the border than currently reported. Still, North Korea's increased testing program would seem to be a stress on the North Korean economy, suggesting either a strategic need to carry out this level of testing, or raising questions about estimates of North Korea's economic problems.
- The North appears to be improving the range and perhaps the accuracy of its KN-09 300 mm Multiple Launch Rocket System. The KN-09 tests showed a 40-kilometer increase in range from last year, now placing most if not all of South Korea's military command and control infrastructure within range of these mobile systems. Furthermore, Pyongyang claims to be developing and demonstrating more effective targeting and guidance systems on these and other missiles. Pyongyang has also issued a statement claiming to have a "newly developed cutting edge tactical guided missile," though it is unclear what system it may be referring to, and the North is known to exaggerate.
- It is possible the tests were carried out to evaluate the combat readiness of the missiles and their crews. The three SCUD-C or SCUD-ER launches were from different locations across the peninsula — one from the west, one from the center near the Demilitarized Zone and one from the east coast. This appears to be a test and demonstration of Pyongyang's ability to use these systems from any location along the front and by different units. The SCUDs launched near Kaesong were also fired from a position approximately 40 kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone, close to South Korea. It is not clear what the timing would be for countering a North Korean launch so close to the Demilitarized Zone, but the test clearly showed Pyongyang was not worried South Korea would try to pre-empt the launch. The SCUDs are road-mobile and do not take long to launch after rolling out, so this was perhaps also a test of real capabilities more than just a political show.