North Korea’s botched missile launch late Thursday has caused the communist regime great embarrassment at home and brought tension with the West to newfound heights, according to several defense experts who have been tracking the regime’s attempts to covertly build and launch a ballistic missile.
"Obviously the rocket launch is pretty embarrassing for Kim Jong-un and North Korea," said Tate Nurkin, Managing Director of IHS Jane’s, a security intelligence group. "The timing of it is significant. North Korea is all about ceremony and stature and grand, symbolic gestures and [the launch was timed to] celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of [Communist leader] Kim Il-sung."
Though yesterday’s launch came as a surprise to some, satellite images revealed that the North Korean military has been preparing the site for some time. Images obtained by Jane’s showed that the regime has been scrubbing the rocket launch site in order to fool the West into believing its goals are peaceful.
North Korea reportedly spent $1 billion to launch what it claimed was a satellite into orbit. The regime has failed to do this several times in the past, as it again attempts to flex its military might on the international stage in order to gain stature and respect from the West.
U.S. military officials and others reported yesterday that the missile was a North Korean-produced Taepo Dong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile. Though the projectile could pose a threat to the U.S., yesterday’s missile broke up soon after launch, splintering into several pieces and plummeting into the Yellow Sea.
Nurkin said that the failed launch could impact South Korea’s political environment.
"Yesterday South Korea held elections for the National Assembly in which every seat was up for grabs," Nurkin explained. ‘This is a huge political year for the South. In addition to the Assembly elections yesterday, the Presidential election is in December. Events like today’s attempted rocket launch flavor and polarize the political atmosphere."
He described the somewhat surprising launch as "provocative and destabilizing" and said that it "increases the possibility for miscalculation and escalation. It's also quite tense when North Korea disrupts South Korean shipping, etc.—all of this is dangerous."
As it has in the past, the North Korean regime wants to stir up an international frenzy in order to garner attention and concessions.
"We don't think that North Korea is seeking conflict," Nurkin said. "They are seeking attention and the concessions that come with that attention that can help prop up the regime. The biggest concern about North Korea is their weakness, not their strength. We worry more about what happens if North Korea falls apart or starts to fall apart than we do about a North Korean invasion of the South or a missile targeted to an Asian or American city."
Jane’s has thoroughly documented attempts by the regime to "demilitarize" the rocket launch site, or tidy up the house, as one expert put it.
"From satellite image analysis we can see clear indications that North Korea is attempting to demilitarize the rocket launch site as part of its campaign to convince the international community that this is a peaceful endeavor," said James Hardy, the Asia Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. "North Korea removed two military barracks close to the site that were visible by satellite on 7 March but are now gone—just in time for the arrival of foreign media. It’s as if they are tidying their house before the guests arrive."
Hardy also detected action at North Korea’s underground nuclear sites, raising concerns that the regime is testing missiles that could potentially carry a nuclear payload.
"Our satellite image analysis found activity on the opposite side of the country at North Korea’s underground nuclear weapons testing site," he explained. "Imagery taken on March 10—just 10 days after it announced a halt to its weapons program—shows a lot of earth has been moved, while more recent imagery shows even more earth piled up."
That, Hardy said, could mean two things: "Firstly, that they are tunneling to create a space for a nuclear device to be tested, and secondly, they are preparing to plug the entrance ahead of the same test. It suggests that something may happen soon, which would show North Korea following its playbook from 2009. In April 2009 it launched a rocket, and in late May 2009 it announced a successful nuclear test."
Activity surrounding the North Korean missile site has been bustling for more than a month, and the launch occurred right on schedule, according to Allison Puccioni, another HIS Jane’s defense expert.
Vehicles and trailers began crowding on the launch pad late last month, she said, putting equipment in line so that a rocket could be erected.
"The launch will be the first attempt at the Sohae Launch Station, which was built between 2007 and 2011," Puccioni explained. "North Korea’s previous launches took place at its older facility at Tonghae-Musudan."
Located in the northwest corner of North Korea, near the Chinese border town of Dandong, Sohae was chosen to "facilitate a southward launch over the Yellow (West) Sea with splash zones for each stage separation off the western coast of South Korea and the Philippine archipelago," she noted.
The site is also more modern than Tonghae, allowing the regime to more easily assemble and transport missiles and rockets.