WASHINGTON (CIRCA) - North Korea has gone to great lengths to conceal its missile program from the world, but at least some of the details behind it have been revealed in a new study that has located more than a dozen of the Kim regime's covert missile sites.
By studying satellite imagery, defector reports and other resources, researchers at the Atlantic Council located 13 of an estimated 20 undeclared missile operations bases spread across North Korea. Its report, published on the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Beyond Parallel blog, offers a first look at how how the Kim regime has spread its missile bases across the country. These bases house missiles of all types, from short-range tactical weapons stationed near the border with South Korea, to inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICMBs), which could potentially threaten U.S. territory. It's all part of a North Korean strategy focused on a potential conflict, according to Joseph Bermudez, one of the report's co-authors and a senior fellow for imagery analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Security.
"If you read the internal media in North Korea, or you watch it, you'll see that they repeatedly state that they are still in a state of war," Bermudez said in an interview. "That's why they've created small bases dispersed around the nation. And they make them very difficult to not only see and identify, but also to neutralize."
Most nuclear powers house their ballistic missiles in silos and operate out of large military bases. North Korea does the opposite. Its military forces are purposefully spread out in many small bases as part of an effort to make them hard to hit in the event of a conflict. The same logic applies to its missile forces. These practices are known as camouflage, concealment and deception procedures in the West, according to Bermudez.
North Korea places the missile operating bases in "belts" across the country. The southernmost belt includes short-range ballistic missiles, the kind used in tactical operations and battlefields. Above that is a belt composed of medium-range missiles scattered across the central regions, while the long-range ICBMs are located toward the north. North Korean officials designed the strategy to allow for the greatest amount of coverage possible.
To better illustrate this strategy, the researchers profiled the Sakkanmol missile operating base. It's an undeclared missile base that houses short-range weapons, most likely Hwasong-5s, Korean versions of the Scud missiles made famous by Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War. While researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Security do not believe North Korea would mount a nuclear warhead on these missiles, the Sakkanmol base is important for two reasons: First, it's located approximately 31 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates North and South Korea. This short distance offers minimal missile flight time, should the two sides engage in a fight. The less time a missile is in the air, the harder it is to detect or intercept.
Second, Sakkanmol's storage facilities are built within adjacent mountains with massive berms -- essentially huge walls of dirt -- piled 60 feet high.
"What this does, it makes it extremely challenging to neutralize these underground facilities with anything but precision guided missiles," said Bermudez. "And even then, they are a challenge."
When the missiles need to be deployed, they are put on mobile launchers and spread across the region, adding another layer of defense.
The researchers concluded that Sakkanmol and the other bases located in the report are operational, and that the U.S. and South Korea would likely expect them to be declared in any future negotiated deal. The covert nature of these facilities seems to be at odds with Kim's pledge to begin denuclearization after his meeting with President Donald Trump. Describing the overtures the U.S. has given North Korea thus far, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley assured reporters last Thursday that the Kim regime will have to prove itself before any solid deal can be made.
"So, we have given a lot of carrots up until now," said Haley. "We're not going to get rid of the stick because they haven't done anything to warrant getting rid of the sanctions yet."
Editor's note: a previous version of this article said the Beyond Parallel blog was a project of the Atlantic Council. Beyond Parallel is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.