Several experts believe missiles that North Korea paraded this month in Pyongyang are fakes because a closer study of photographs of the weapons reveals odd inconsistencies in their design.
The missiles were shown as part of birthday celebrations for the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, just days after a failed rocket launch that embarrassed the reclusive regime. The country has continually touted its military heft in an escalating war of words with South Korea since then.
"Superiority in military technology is no longer monopolized by imperialists, and the era of enemies using atomic bombs to threaten and blackmail us is forever over," leader Kim Jong Un was quoted by the Associated Press as saying in a speech coinciding with the lavish military parade.
But a closer look at the six missiles shows that none of them are exactly the same, a glaring issue for weapons that must be carefully engineered, analysts Markus Schiller and Robert H. Schmucker wrote. They spotted a number of strange features on the purported missiles. For instance, the warheads do not appear capable of separating from the missiles, a key stage in ensuring proper flight.
The surface of the missiles is undulating, “as if a thin metal sheet was fixed onto a simple inner frame” -- hardly a structure that could withstand atmospheric reentry, Schiller and Schmucker said. And the features of the missiles suggest they would use a strange fusion of liquid- and solid-fuel technology.
“That's plain impossible,” said Schiller, senior associate at Schmucker Technologie, a Munich consulting company. “It’s like looking at a train that has steam exhaust and electricity at the same time.”
The findings, released last week, have convinced other experts that the missiles aren't really missiles. The ballyhooed weapons inspired skepticism from the start: Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that when he first saw the weapons, he simply didn’t believe that North Korea had the industrial muscle to make them.
“The only way North Korea could develop such a missile with its pitiful economy would be if someone gave it to them,” Postol argued. His skepticism was deepened by the fact that the United States hasn’t detected any test firings of the missiles, which would be needed to perfect them.
The question that remains is whether the missiles were mockups of a real missile that is being developed or simply phony missiles wheeled out for show, said David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. North Korea has shown off mockups before.
"It's very hard to know what game they're playing with this," Wright said.
Beyond the missiles, the bigger fear now is that North Korea will soon carry out a nuclear test, something it has done twice in the past after attempting a rocket launch.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: What appears to be a missile is on display during an April 15 military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Ng Han Guan / Associated Press