North Korea announced on Tuesday, April 10, that it had completed preparations for this week's satellite launch and a day later started fueling for a test that the United States says raises questions about Pyongyang's desire to improve relations with the rest of the world. But more worryingly, Pyongyang also announced that it had begun a five-year program to develop even larger rockets, which could function as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) potentially able to reach the continental United States.
Earlier this month, a South Korean newspaper reported an unconfirmed claim that a U.S. reconnaissance satellite had spotted a new North Korean rocket, probably at the Sanum Dong research and development facility in Pyongyang, where other long-range systems have been observed in the past. According to this report and others that seem to substantiate the North's claims, this new 40 meter missile is 25 percent longer and has a larger booster than the Unha-3 rocket scheduled for launch this week. Whether this system is functional or a life-size mock-up remains unclear. While impossible to confirm, analyzing satellite images and photographs of the new launch facility, as well as displays at a museum in Pyongyang, seem to suggest that North Korea is developing an intercontinental ballistic missile with longer range and greater capabilities than the one scheduled for testing this week. And there's a chance that this new, more threatening missile might even be on display in Pyongyang soon, for either the April 15 centenary parade for the late Kim Il Sung or the April 25 military founding day parade.
Is there cause to worry? In a word, yes. Before leaving office last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke numerous times about the threat a North Korean ICBM posed to the United States. While a previous North Korean missile tested in 2009 -- the Unha-2 -- could potentially reach the United States, the even larger rocket in development will likely be able to carry heavier warhead payloads longer distances, an important attribute given the likelihood that Pyongyang's nuclear technology may not be that advanced.
Some clues to this mysterious new missile can be found at North Korea's new Sohae test center, on which construction started early this decade and where it plans to launch the Unha-3 rocket this week. Pyongyang has historically designed its gantries (launch towers) with a view towards accommodating future generations of rockets. For example, the Tonghae gantry at its old launch facility, was initially used for the 1998 launch of the smaller Taepodong -1 (TD-1) rocket, but also built to hold the later, larger Unha missile.
Figure 1. This picture, taken recently in Pyongyang's Three Revolutions Museum, shows scale models of the Unha-2 next to the TD-1 rocket in the gantry.
To launch the larger Unha rocket in 2009, the North Koreans added a fifth set of movable work platforms at the top of the gantry shown in figure 2.
Recent photos of the new Sohae gantry taken by visiting journalists on April 8 show that it is designed the same way. In figure 3, the Unha-3 rocket is set on a seven-meter high mobile launch platform. The 30 meter-long rocket comes up to the second level of the fourth set of work platforms, leaving about 10 meters of the tower, enough to accommodate the reported new 40-meter rocket.
Figure 2. The Tonghae gantry used for the TD-1 and the same gantry with the addition of the fifth platform required for the Unha-2.