By Hwang Yong-soo
|Hwang Yong-soo, member of Asia Pacific Leadership Network and principal researcher at Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute|
The first has been amplified by rumors about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's health which created much uncertainty about the stability of the Korean Peninsula. Although the South Korean government repeatedly confirmed that the situation in the North was normal, many "irresponsible" parties contributed to wild speculation about North Korean leadership succession and even the possible need for external intervention to establish order in the North. This miasma of rumor and fabrication simply disappeared when Kim reappeared on May 1. By then, possible damage had been done to North Korean perceptions of the intentions of external parties ― perhaps this was the motivation of the original rumormongers?
Meanwhile, another rumor is afoot, this time propagated by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an American think tank, which published a report on Beyond Parallel on May 5 suggesting that a long-range missile manufacturing and testing facility is located at Sil-li near Pyongyang. Although this report rests on interpreted open source satellite imagery rather than simply cranking the rumor mill as occurred with Kim's health status, its conclusions that leap from hypothesis to inferred conclusion are not persuasive.
For its part, the South Korean government already announced that there is no evidence to support this report's interpretations. This presumably would include other types of information such as signals or communications intelligence, or other insights into the actual purpose of the new buildings under construction at the airport.
The CSIS report suggests that components of long-range missiles will be delivered, assembled, and tested inside new buildings at the site. The final products, ostensibly long-range missiles, would then be delivered to the Korean People's Army rocket force. After storage in inventory, these missiles, suggests the report, would be transported by railway or newly constructed roads or air via Sunan Airport.
CSIS also claims that the newly constructed high-bay section in the center building may be a site for testing and production of long-range missiles. Yet, already identified facilities in Dongchang and Sinpo have "horizontal" missile process facilities. If the high-bay section in Sil-li is set up to be fully functional for long-range missiles and transport system testing, it would indeed be a significant achievement. Unfortunately, there is no open-source information to support this theory. Moreover, the transport of large missiles and components to and from Sil-li would be apparent via national technical means to the United States and its allies.
Of course, without access to the site or the minds of the North Korean military, it is impossible to refute CSIS's inferences. But readers might ponder on whether North Korea's leaders would construct their most critical missile facility adjacent to Sunan Airport, the North's national airport. It would be about as likely that the Boeing would have made the U.S. Minuteman missile not in Utah but next to Dulles international airport in Virginia. Possible, but not likely. And alternative explanations of large buildings next to an airport seem entirely logical as the purpose attributed to these buildings by CSIS.
Some details in media coverage of the CSIS report reveal an ignorance of how missile sites are set up in North Korea. Media reports dwell on a "single" suspicious underground tunnel in Sil-li. We frankly do not know the purpose of this tunnel, assuming it exists. We also do not completely understand whether the housing near the facility is linked to this facility or the traditional cooperative farming system in the North. It's also notable that the fenced Sil-li facility does not provide space for further expansion.
Moreover, North Korea's ICBM test history is inconsistent with the Sil-li rumor. Firstly, if Sil-li is focused on development of the Hwasong-14, then the North would have begun to construct it well before the Hwasong-14 test in July 28, 2017. Secondly, if its role is to upgrade existing ICBMs, then it would be normal not to complete the designing and construction of the internal high-bay section but to wait for collection of the valuable field test data from the real ICBM Hwasong-15 at the end of Nov. 28, 2017.
In fact, the Hwasong-14 was tested famously on July 4, 2017, on America's Independence Day, followed by a second test on July 28, 2017; the operational Hwasong-15 was tested on Nov. 28, 2017. Yet, Google Earth pro's satellite image reveals that the facility in April 2017 without construction of three buildings that are now the subject of wild rumors, that is, before the July test. This demonstrates that Sil-li contributed nothing for the development of ICBMs that can be documented from such imagery.
The September 2017 satellite image published by the CSIS shows the active construction of a high-bay section. This structure also could not have played a role in the Hwasong-15 test in November.
The most egregious error in the CSIS report is to shift from investigating based on inference based on size and location to a hard conclusion as uncontestable fact, with statements such as the site is henceforth "identified as the Sil-li Ballistic Missile Support Facility" until proven otherwise.
In summary, we see no evidence to support the argument that facilities at Sil-li are dedicated to ICBM development and deployment. Such rumors simply muddy the waters and get in the way of the steps needed to establish meaningful monitoring and verification of North Korea's missile program.
It is timely to resume dialogue over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. As we learned from South Korea's successful management of COVID-19, collective effort by all sectors, integrated by strong leadership and popular will to guide the leading institutions on the pandemic frontline, enabled the South to bring the first wave under control. This approach based on clarity of purpose and the strong support of civil society, not rumors, shows how best to proceed on realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula against all odds.
Hwang Yong-soo is a member of Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) and a principal researcher at Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). During his 30 year experiences in the nuclear related works, he served as a senior vice president of KAERI, the director general of Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC) and other positions. He received his B.S. from Seoul National University and M.S. and Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley.