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May 16, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

Missile, nuke tests detailed
SEOUL — New details emerged here regarding recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests, Inside the Ring has learned.

First, North Korea succeeded in developing its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the KN-20, in a relatively fast five to six years and with extensive assistance from both Russia and China.

The first test-firing of the KN-20 ICBM took place on July 4, 2017, and was described by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as an Independence Day “gift” for “American bastards,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported at the time. A second KN-20 was launched 24 days later.

The missile was assessed by American intelligence to be capable of reaching North America with a nuclear warhead.

In November 2017, North Korea emerged with a second new ICBM, dubbed the KN-22 by the Pentagon.

The long-range missile tests, along with a large underground nuclear test on Sept. 3, 2017, set off a crisis in U.S.-North Korean relations with President Trump vowing to take action against the Kim regime. The crisis led to the current round of diplomacy and summits, the most recent of which ended in failure in Hanoi, Vietnam.

North Korea appeared to ratchet up tensions last weekend by launching two short-range missiles that were assessed as having technological capabilities beyond those of North Korea’s older Scud short-range missiles. U.S. and South Korean government analysts determined that the test involved a missile that did not fly in a ballistic trajectory but was capable of flying around 300 miles.

North Korea calls the two ICBMs Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, respectively. “Hwasong” means Mars in Korean.

In July 2017, Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, then-commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said in an interview that the test of the KN-20 moved up estimates of when North Korea would be capable of striking the United States with missiles. “It is a bit of a game-changer for us,” he said in an interview.

The long-range missile development is viewed as a surprise and a tremendous leap forward in the missile program. The missiles were built largely in secret without using some of the static engine testing that took place for earlier long-range missiles and which was detected by satellite imagery.

The Russian connection to the North Korean missile program was traced to the period near the end of the regime of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, who died in December 2011. It was during this period that North Korea was able to covertly purchase a number of Soviet-era RD-250 rocket engines and design information on the engines that became the basis for Pyongyang’s family of long-range missiles.

Analysts believe the engines were then modified with the help of foreign rocket scientists. Assessments of the missiles indicate it was very unlikely that North Korea had the technical capabilities to modify the rocket engines and thus foreign assistance was critical.

In August, 2017, Ukraine’s state space agency announced that the RD-250 engine was in fact used in the July 28 KN-20 test, but that the engines had been sold to Russia strictly for use in the Tsyklon space launchers supplied to Moscow.

The Chinese contribution is evident in the mobile transporter erector launchers that carry both the KN-20 and KN-22. The mobile launchers give the long-range missiles the ability to hide from overhead satellite and other intelligence assets and thus provide greater protection against pre-launch attacks.

The strategic missile transfers were carried out by the Chinese disguised as a commercial truck transfer.

The Treasury Department in October 2017 imposed economic sanctions on the Wuhan Sanjiang Import and Export Co. Ltd., a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., known as CASIC, the state-run mobile missile maker. The sanctions were for illicit sales of missile goods to Iran.

However, Treasury officials announced that the same company supplied North Korea with six off-road lumber transporter vehicles in 2011 that “North Korea subsequently converted into Transporter-Erector-Launchers (TELs) for use in its ballistic missile program.”

While some private analysts have questioned whether North Korea has the capability of placing a nuclear warhead on its ICBMs, the view from Seoul is that the missile warhead threat is real and current.

The yield of the September 2017 underground blast has been assessed at between 6 kilotons and 120 kilotons and was the largest test carried out so far. The test showed more advanced characteristics than previous nuclear tests.

North Korea, despite informing the Trump administration that it is willing to give up its nuclear weapons and programs, is continuing work on the weapons programs. The two short-range missiles tested on May 9 were fired from the northwestern city of Kusong and flew 260 miles toward the east. North Korea announced on state media that the missiles were a “strike drill” and, significantly, were observed by Mr. Kim himself.

The latest tests were the second in less than a week and are believed to be a sign of frustration on the part of Mr. Kim, who is said to be upset that the Hanoi summit with Mr. Trump in February failed to produce the expected relief from U.S. and international economic sanctions.

The U.S. military in South Korea has a new base for some of the 23,468 troops deployed in the Northeast Asian region after the opening last year of U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys.

The base was built at a cost of more than $10 billion and houses around 10,000 troops, as well as the headquarters for U.S. Forces Korea, the U.S.-South Korean military command and the U.N. military command. American units there include the 8th Army and the 2nd Infantry Division.

The new base, also known as Camp Humphreys, was built on 3,400 acres of land about 22 miles south of Seoul near the town of Pyeongtaek.

Initially an army airfield known as Camp Humphreys, the land around the new base had to be built up with soil imported from China because mountainous South Korea did not have enough surplus dirt, leading some to quip that the base is the first American military base built on Chinese soil.

The base also sports a new golf course, the River Bend Golf Course, which is considered the military’s premier course. It is notable for being designed by famed golf architect Robert Trent Jones II.

The new base is part of a multiyear effort to relocate American military forces outside of the city of Seoul, providing greater protection against North Korean missile and artillery strikes.

North Korea has up to 70% of its military forces located within range of the Greater Seoul metropolitan area.

Humphreys is about 60 miles from the demilitarized zone, putting it still within missile range of North Korea. In order to provide some protection for troops, the base is defended by a battery of Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile interceptors.

The Pacific Air Force is hosting a large-scale military exercise in Alaska this month as part of preparations to defend against foreign military threats in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Northern Edge 2019” began May 13 and involves 10,000 troops from the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The war games will end May 24.

“Northern Edge is designed to replicate a series of potential crises that could occur in the Indo-Pacific region,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Daniel Heires. “Specifically, it is to hone the combat skills of our naval, Marine and Air Force aviators and ground personnel to be able to respond to a crisis, hone their tactical skills and command and control, and especially our interoperability with our sister services.”

For the first time, an aircraft carrier battle group, led by the carrier USS Roosevelt, is part of the exercise in the Gulf of Alaska. A special Marine Corps air-ground task force also is involved. A total of 250 combat aircraft will take part, including the new frontline F-35 stealth jet and F-18s.

Gen. Heires said in a press conference that Alaska is the most strategic location in the world. “We can range any capital in about nine hours,” he said.

The one-star general said the global order is facing serious threats and said of the exercise: “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in wartime.” Specific exercise scenarios were not disclosed, but the forces will practice air interdiction, air-to-ground attacks and airstrikes against sea targets.

The exercise is held regularly and in the past was known as Jack Frost, Grim Frost and Arctic Warrior.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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