Joshua PollackRussia Eyes North Korea

Cross-posted from

Few things are more curious than how senior Russian officials have described the more spectacular North Korean missile and nuclear developments of recent years. Compared to Japan, South Korea, and the U.S., the Russians are outliers.

First, recall the multiple missile launches of July 5, 2006. The synoptic view is that North Korea launched seven missiles, including a TD-2, which failed seconds into flight. The rest were SRBMs and MRBMs.

And here is the Russian view:

05/07/2006 14:12 MOSCOW, July 5 (RIA Novosti) – Russia most senior army officer said Wednesday that North Korea may have fired 10 missiles – four more than first thought – in tests late Tuesday night.

“According to some information, North Korea launched 10 missiles of different classes,” Chief of the General Staff Yury Balyuevsky, adding that they could have been intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It seems, moreover, that Russian early warning radars could not see the missile launches. It’s not at all clear why General Baluyevsky concluded what he did.

Then there was the nuclear test of Oct. 9, 2006:

Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the North Korean nuclear device was the equivalent of 5 to 15 kilotons of TNT. Calculations based on the US Geological Survey and South Korean results suggest an explosion between 550 tons to 1 kiloton of TNT.

And now, the Unha-2. U.S. Northern Command said it went “splash”:

Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean.

No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry said it went “zoom”:

Утром 5 апреля КНДР осуществила запуск на околоземную орбиту искусственного спутника Земли. По данным российских средств контроля воздушного и космического пространства траектория запуска не проходила над территорией Российской Федерации. В настоящее время уточняются параметры орбиты спутника. renders the above as:

“North Korea sent an artificial satellite into an Earth orbit on the morning of April 5. The parameters of the satellite’s orbit are being specified now,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement on the ministry’s Web site.

(Credit is due to a sharp-eyed ACW commenter.)

Update: Here’s the official translation.

What’s behind these differences in perception? I only wish I knew. It’s certainly unnerving that senior officials in Moscow seem to have such… unique understandings of nuclear and missile events on the Russian territorial periphery.

Be Perturbed. Be Very Perturbed.
While it’s a positive scandal that RAMOS and JDEC have fallen by the wayside, the problem seems like much more than a matter of a lack of common sensors, information, or operating picture. The RF-US disputes over Euro-GMD and the Iranian missile threat also come to mind.

But the North Korea perception gap is especially troubling for a reason that’s received little attention in national security debates. If North Korea were to launch an ICBM towards the western half of North America, and the U.S. were to launch GMD interceptors from its Alaskan base, the intercept attempts would occur over Russian soil.

Here’s a handy depiction of the scenario, courtesy of Ted Postol. Red tracks are NK ICBMs, blue tracks are GMD interceptors, black fans are EW radars:

For an NK ICBM aimed at any point in North America, the interceptors would fly out in the direction of Russia. And interceptors that didn’t intercept would continue towards, well, a lot of potential places in Russia and beyond:

For comparison, the report of the NAS panel on Conventional Prompt Global Strike endorsed the Conventional Trident Modification in large part because conventional ICBMs would have to overfly Russia to get anywhere useful, a proposition the panel deemed unacceptable.

With GMD, unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t get the choice of when and where to fire, only whether to fire. This delicate and under-appreciated consideration would make the actual use of GMD the world’s biggest game of Russian Roulette.

Due credit: Elaine Bunn at NDU discussed this problem in her analysis of missile-defense deployment.

Update: Can Russia detect North Korean missile launches? It doesn’t look like it.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    Side note – one can fire continental US based conventional ICBMs at the likely target regions flying south out of Vandenberg, the long way around, with considerable delta-V penalty.

    My business was one of the original DARPA FALCON SLV bidders, and we proposed to do exactly that, for exactly that reason – not overflying Russia or China on the way to (insert likely targets list).

    NMD hasn’t got that option – you can fly long range interceptors out a ways, and intercept just about any credible trajectory, and drop a lot of spent interceptors and booster upper stages over China or Russia. Or you can fire shorter range pop-up interceptors from closer to exactly under the flight path … but then you need interceptors within one intercept radii of all the credible flightpaths attacking the US, and you need a lot of interceptor launch sites. The interceptor boosters are cheaper as they’re lower performance, but the kill vehicle count goes up, and to stop a 5-10 NK ICBM attack on the US you need enough pop-up interceptors that the total count approaches what would stop a Russian counterstrike following a preemptive countersilo US attack. Which destabilizes the geopolitical situation in uncomfortable ways.

  2. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    What a mess. How do you convince Russia it’s not under attack if their sensor network might be flawed? Maybe the NASA sounding rocket out of Norway should be added to evidence of Russian early warning shortcomings. If the US is defending in this manner, missiles are flying and everybody’s alert levels are going to be pegged. Dare I propose that maybe it’s better to take the hit?

    As for going the FROBS approach for conventional strike how would you ensure the Russians that we are not doing what they were going to do with the early model R-36’s?

    It would seem as if both global strikers and arms control wonks’ interests would both be served if there were a global monitoring system with the data shared by all nuclear powers. Just so everybody knows what’s on the up and up, and going down. Or perhaps a reduction to zero nuclear warheads on missiles if verifiable could open the way for the global strikers to operate without a shared sensor network? Would any of these options add to stability? I’m not so sure.

  3. Silent Hunter (History)

    A very interesting article and one that illuminates a new perspective on the whole issue.

    Surely this could be resolved with the Hot Line though.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Could the hot line really help all that much? Imagine the crisis. Missiles inbound to the USA. Most probably the US has launched an ABM response and durring acceleration you can’t rule out the possibility that you may be a target. Granted the Russians should be able to determine the launch point and see that the ABM’s were launched from Alaska or Vandenberg. But how will people react when they see what may look like RV’s headed their way during a crisis? It’s not a time when heads will be cool.
    Throw in the probability that the US would also launch an SLBM strike on the DPRK to ensure that launch facilities no longer exist to launch again, and also to knock out storage, production, and leadership. I can’t see how the Russians would not bring their force to full alert. The Chinese would too. Being partially blind would not help matters. Nor do I think would kind words from a leader of an engaged nation when you can’t see the full picture. It’s a real recipe for escalation and compounded disaster.

  5. Yale Simkin (History)

    In addition to confirming the “successful” NK satellite orbit, the multikiloton NK nuclear test, etc., our Russian friends also confirmed the first “successful” NK launch in 1998:

    Sunday, September 6, 1998
    Russia spots North Korean satellite
    MOSCOW, Sept 5: Russia’s space observation centre has spotted the satellite North Korea claimed to have launched Monday, Itar-Tass news agency reported Satu rday.
    A centre official told the agency that the launch indicated that North Korea had the technical knowledge for firing an intercontinental missile.
    The observation centre, which is run by the Russia armed forces, confirmed Pyongyang’s statement that the satellite had been placed in an orbit of between 218.82 km and 6,978.20 km (135.67 and 4326.48 miles), circling the earth every 165 minutes and six seconds.

  6. Cristina Hansell (History)

    I am curious to know if anyone has seen an official Russian acknowledgment that the NK missile fell in the sea? A quick search also turned up the following on the Russian Foreign Ministry site, a conversation between Lavrov and Nakasone on April 5:

    О телефонном разговоре Министра иностранных дел России С.В.Лаврова с Министром иностранных дел Японии Х.Накасонэ
    [On a telephone conversation between Minister S. Lavrov and Japanese Foreign Minister Nakasone]

    5 апреля по инициативе японской стороны состоялся телефонный разговор Министра иностранных дел Российской Федерации С.В.Лаврова с Министром иностранных дел Японии Х.Накасонэ.

    Главной темой разговора стал осуществленный в КНДР запуск искусственного спутника Земли. Стороны провели обмен мнениями относительно возникшей в этой связи напряженной ситуации и перспектив ее рассмотрения в Совете Безопасности ООН. При этом было отмечено, что российская сторона будет исходить из оценки произошедшего на основе поступающей объективной информации о параметрах запуска.

    The above is the key sentence:
    “It was noted that the Russian side would proceed on the basis of an evaluation of the events on the basis of the receipt of objective information on the parameters of the launch.”

    [my own clunky translation, just trying to give readers an understanding of what Lavrov actually said]
    Была также подчеркнута необходимость совместных действий заинтересованных государств по сохранению стабильности в Северо–Восточной Азии и продолжению шестисторонних переговоров по ядерной проблеме Корейского полуострова.

    This makes it seem that Russia really doesn’t have its own data on the missile trajectory??

  7. Josh (History)


    On April 7, Rossiskaya Gazeta reported the following:

    Finally, on Monday, according to Interfax-AVN, a high-level representative of Russia’s General Staff stated that “our space monitoring system has not recorded the orbiting of a North Korean satellite.”

    Easy to overlook, I guess…

  8. Josh (History)


    Indeed, the answer appears to be that Russia cannot really detect North Korean missile launches.

    Read more here.