Jeffrey LewisSoviet FROGS in North Korea

The Soviet Union supplied North Korea with FROG surface-to-surface missiles around 1969. This is how the US figured it out.

North Korea’s first missile system was the Soviet 2K6 Luna, known in the United States as the FROG-3/5 or Free Rocket Over Ground. We’ve been going through a lot of historical North Korean materials, like the excerpt from The Shining History of Victorious Juche shown above, trying to understand the historical origins of North Korea’s missile programs. In doing so, I stumbled across a little story about the first identification of Soviet FROGs in North Korea.

The story is straightforward — an SR-71 took a picture on a day when the North Koreans had left the Soviet-supplied FROG missile launchers out in the open. The story doesn’t rewrite history or anything, but it does show how the US detected and analyzed a Soviet arms transfer to North Korea.

Also, it’s a bit of a period piece. North Korea doesn’t just leave missile launchers sitting out in the open these days. I am a bit jealous. We have far more imagery available to us these days, but we don’t often get shots like this.

1. OH, HAI THERE.

a. Cable (SANITIZED) from NPIC, October 22, 1969, Source: CREST.

On 17 October 1969, the United States conducted an SR-71 reconnaissance mission over North Korea. (The SR-71 mission was code-named GIANT SCALE S193.) To the surprise of US photointerpreters conducting a “preliminary scan” of the imagery, one of the images showed eight Soviet FROG surface-to-surface missile launchers and associated support equipment. The cable describes the location as an “untargeted facility,” which implies the image was lucky shot. They hadn’t been especially interested in the site prior to the mission, although they certainly were after. “This is the first identification of FROG equipment in North Korea.” The location is given as 39 00 00°N, 125 36 10°E, but that’s about 1.4 km from the actual location using a modern georeference sytem. If you want to check it out in Google Earth, use 39.010, 125.608°.

b. Directorate of Intelligence “North Korea: The Soviets have supplied a tactical rocket system to Pyongyang,” Central Intelligence Bulletin, October 24, 1969. Source: CREST.

The preliminary analysis seems to have held up, because a few days later the intelligence was written up in the Central Intelligence Bulletin. The article is mainly interesting as an example of how analysts choose to summarize and add context to an initial analysis, including a rather lame paragraph at the end attempting to assess what presence of eight FROG launchers might mean. “The deployment of the rockets near Pyongyang indicates that they are intended to have a defensive role against invading forces. The FROG is a mobile system, however, and could be deployed elsewhere to improve the firepower of North Korea’s ground forces …” So, they’re defensive unless the North Koreans want to use them offensively. Got it.

c. “FROG Equipment, Barracks and Support Area, Pyongyang, North Korea,” National Photographic Interpretation Center, Briefing Board, October 23, 1969. Source: CREST

This file contains a poor quality copy of a briefing board, as well as an attachment with some supporting information. The attachment notes that the equipment was “present on small-scale photography” but “was not possible to identify at this time. The type of small-scale photography is redacted, although it may refer to a KH-4 image taken on October 7, 1969.

Briefing Board showing Taepyong-ni Tactical SSM Support Facility and Barracks

2. NOW YOU SEE THEM, NOW YOU DON’T.

a. National Photographic Interpretation Center, Untitled, March 16, 1970. Source: CREST.

b. National Photographic Interpretation Center, Untitled, March 16, 1970. Source: CREST.

c. KH-4 Mission 1109, Oak Cumulative Index, Mission 1109-I, 5-11 March 1970.

The site was photographed again by a KH-4 mission (1109-1) in early March 1970 and dropped in the first bucket of film. By this time, the United States intelligence community had named the site the Taepyong-ni Tactical SSM Support Facility and Barracks area. When the photointepreters looked at the image, they saw the FROG launchers had “been moved from their previous parking area to an unknown location.”

d. Declassified KH-4B satellite image, Entity: DS1109-2199DA067, Mission 1109-2, Acquisition date: March 17, 1970. Source: USGS.

The site appears to have been imaged a second time by the same KH-4 mission (1109) on March 17, 1970, and dropped in the second bucket of film. A portion of this image is reproduced below. It is possible, even with the poor quality reproduction of the briefing board, to see how much better SR-71 images were than those provided by the KH-4.

Taepyong-ni Tactical SSM Support Facility and Barracks in March 1970

3. THEY’RE BAAAAAAAACK!

a. National Photographic Interpretation Center, Untitled, May 26, 1970. Source: CREST.

b. National Photographic Interpretation Center, Untitled, May 26, 1970. Source: CREST.

The US would keep monitoring Taepyong-ni. In May, another SR-71 mission (GIANT SCALE S250) imaged the site again. There were 4 FROG launchers out in the open. Declassified documents show the United States continuing to monitor the site through the 1980s — and it probably still does to this day.

SO FREAKING WHAT?

The FROG isn’t a terribly impressive missile system. But that said, the FROG is an important early step in North Korea’s now long-running missile program.

After the Soviets supplied the missiles seen in 1969, North Korea would eventually reverse-engineer the system at the January 18 Machine Plant. North Korea would name this missile the Hwasong-1 — the first in the series of Hwasong missiles that now includes liquid-propellant ICBMs like the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-17 developed to target the United States.

Taepyong-ni Tactical SSM Support Facility and Barracks today.

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