Jeffrey LewisICBM Testing at Sunan

Update: North Korea conducted a failed test of a presumed Hwasong-17 out of Sunan the other day. So, I guess we won’t be getting pictures.

An item in the JoongAng Daily caught my eye. A South Korean official claims North Korea is preparing to launch an intercontinental-range ballistic missile from near Sunan Airport.

South Korea and the United States have detected signs that North Korea will launch a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as early as this week and have entered into intensive monitoring.

A high-ranking government official, who wished to remain anonymous, said on the 13th, “We have detected signs that North Korea will launch additional missiles in the area near Pyongyang Sunan Airport, where it recently launched missiles.” South Korea and the US authorities are monitoring it,” he said.

북한이 이르면 이번주초 신형 대륙간탄도미사일(ICBM)을 발사할 징후를 한미가 포착해 집중감시에 들어갔다.

익명을 원한 정부 고위 당국자는 13일 “북한이 최근 미사일을 발사한 평양 순안공항 일대에서 미사일을 추가 발사할 징후를 포착했다”며 “언제라도 발사할 준비를 하고 있고 이르면 이번주 초 발사할 가능성을 염두에 두고 한·미 당국이 감시중”이라고 전했다.

I was surprised by the claim that North Korea might test an ICBM out of the country’s major international airport. But, the more I think about recent trends, the more plausible it seems to me.

North Korea’s last two missile tests — on 27 February and 5 March — both occurred near Sunan Airport. US officials believe are developmental testfor the Hwasong-17 ICBM. These tests that are, inconsistent with Kim Jong Un’s now moribund moratorium on ICBM launches that he announced in 2018, although none demonstrated that range.

The last two Hwasong-12 tests of 2017, by the way, were also conducted at Sunan. I know, the Hwasong-12 isn’t an ICBM. The moratorium on ICBM launches, however, was defined less by range than by family resemblance. What was so surprising about North Korea’s missile program in 2017 was the demonstration of a new, much improved liquid propellant rocket engine, the March 18 Revolution engine. The new liquid-propellant missiles we have seen since 2017 — the Hwasong-12, -14, -15, and -17 — use variants of the March 18 Revolution engine. These missiles are all part of the same March 18 Revolution lineage. (And Kim Jong Un is an expert on revolutionary lineage.) When Kim said he was suspending ICBM launches, he also suspended Hwasong-12 launches as well. If he had kept launching the Hwasong-12, weenies like me would have accused him of testing ICBMs in disguise. So, I am going to treat the Hwasong-12 as a member of the family, just like the Roys tolerate Greg Hirsch.

North Korea seems to have largely shifted testing of the Hwasong-12, -14, 15, -17 family to Sunan. Here is a table of launches for these systems.

20174 AprilSinpoHwasong-12 (failure)
201715 AprilSinpoHwasong-12 (failure)
201728 AprilPukchangHwasong-12 (failure)
201714 MayKusongHwasong-12
20174 JulyPanghyongHwasong-14
201728 JulyMupyong-niHwasong-14
201729 AugustSunanHwasong-12
201715 SeptemberSunanHwasong-12
201728 NovemberPyongsongHwasong-15
202230 JanuaryMupyong-niHwasong-12
202227 FebruarySunanHwasong-17 developmental
20225 MarchSunanHwasong-17 developmental

Before August 2017, North Korea tested the Hwasong-12 and -14 at various locations around the country. Kim Jong Un would visit an important defense factory, watch the missile be checked out before launch, then head to a vantage point to watch the really big show.

After August 2017, however, all ICBM-related tests have occurred at Sunan, except for the Hwasong-15 ICBM which also took place in exurban Pyongyang. One possibility is that the shift to Sunan is for Kim’s comfort. The problem with this hypothesis is that he still travels all over the country for other kinds of launches. Another possibility is a concern for Kim’s security. A surprise location might seem safer, but some reporting suggests that preparations for Kim’s arrival tipped off the US and ROK to forthcoming tests.

An international airport is a strange place to test ICBMs. But this is a very strange airport. And it’s been getting progressively stranger all the time. Starting in 2016, North Korea began constructing a facility near the airport that appeared to be for ballistic missiles. This facility repurposed an underground tunnel previously used for military aircraft. One notable signature of the new facility is a high-bay building, suitable for erecting missiles on a launcher. As the facility neared completion in 2020, it sure looked like a missile facility, but my colleagues and I at CNS were reluctant to make that call. Happily, Joe Bermudez and the team at CSIS did, naming the Sil-li Ballistic Missile Support Facility.

What was so strange about this facility, other than being located next to an international airport, is that it seems to lack housing for personnel and that road access requires passing through the airport. (My sense is that the housing next to the facility identified by CSIS is for the nearby cooperative farm. It is fairly typical of the housing one sees at model farms and I don’t see an access point for these people to the missile-related facility.) I simply did not then, and do not now, think it looks like an operational missile base. But it does look much, much more like a missile-related facility than it does anything else. The term that Bermudez picked — ballistic missile “support” facility — seems like exactly the right phrase to me, but what sort of support are we talking about?

I now wonder, with so many tests occurring at Sunan, whether “support” in this context might be support for continued missile testing. The idea of placing a dedicated facility to support developmental missile testing at North Korea’s major international airport is absolutely bonkers. But then again, North Korea is the only country I can think of that has conducted missile tests from its primary international airport.

We don’t (yet) have any photographic evidence to confirm that the last three tests were staged out of the Sil-li facility. We also don’t know where the 2017 tests, which were conducted before the construction of this facility, were staged prior to being launched on the runway of the airport. Kim usually shows up early and gets in a little quality time with the missile before the launch. That’s his normal practice, although North Korean state media doesn’t always show us these touching moments. Sadly, North Korea has been extremely stingy with images of the last three tests. If they are being staged out of the Sil-li facility, North Korea isn’t sharing — yet.

I suspect, however, that we’re going to find out. North Korea is definitely heading toward testing a liquid propellant ICBM with multiple warheads, although we might see a space launch or, less likely, a solid propellent ICBM first. But if a big Hwasong-17 soars into the sky from Sunan, as that South Korean official predicted, we’ll probably get the pictures to answer our questions.