Today's North Korean Missile Threat Might Actually Be Scary

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It's easy to take North Korea's constant proclamations of war with a grain or heap or silo of salt — the nation's propaganda machine has a habit of chest puffing, and its military never really delivers. But when intercepted North Korean internal communications reveal that they're planning to launch a mobile ballistic missile? Well, maybe we should take that a little more seriously. CNN has the scoop this morning: 

CNN is gathering this information from an unnamed U.S. defense official, but Starr's sourcing tends to be strong. To be clear, this intercepted communique comes as South Korean officials are reporting that North Korea moved a missile to its eastern coast. Here's why those two reports, when combined, might make for more than proclamations as usual: 

Japan and the North Korean Fondness for Birthdays

"While it has 'considerable' range, the missile isn't capable of hitting the continental U.S.," reads the report from Bloomberg's Sangwon Yoon, who gleaned a briefing from South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin.

"Considerable range" could spell problems for Japan, a nation that's obviously are a lot closer than the U.S. to North Korea — and almost as detested, too. CNN's Jethro Mullen and Joe Sterling asked Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, what that would mean and why this time frame of "weeks" could be problematic:

The medium-range missile will probably take about two weeks to prepare, Fitzpatrick said, which means a potential launch could coincide with the April 15 anniversary of the the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of its current leader, Kim Jong Un.

Known as "the Day of the Sun," Kim Il Sung's birthday is a major public holiday in North Korea that is usually accompanied by large-scale parades.

And what better way to commemorate Kim Il Sung's "Day of the Sun" than a setting the shores of one of North Korea's most hated enemies on fire?

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The KN-08

It's unclear if the missile that South Korea reports as on the move is the same missile that internal communication is talking about. And here's why that's worrisome. "The projectile moved today isn't a mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile," Bloomberg's Yoon reports. There are those words again "mobile ballistic missile."

That KN-08 missile, according to U.S. officials, has the capability of hitting U.S. soil, but U.S. officials won't tell us if it even exists. Foreign Policy's Jeffrey Lewis recapped a March 15 briefing with Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld: 

Q: But do you know if that that KN-08 is a real or a fake missile? And do you know whether it has the range to reach the United States?

ADM. WINNEFELD: We would probably want to avoid the intelligence aspects of that. But -- but we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States and the -- our assessment of -- of where it exists in its lifetime is something that would remain classified. 

As Lewis points out, Chuck Hagel did decide to add 14 ground-based interceptors to the ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) system in Alaska, which costs the U.S. government just under $1 billion. This news may prompt the U.S. government to spend more money (perhaps over a fake missile?) at a time when Pentagon budgets are already stretched razor thin, but it may give the Pentagon an opportunity to try out a GMD system — a system that has its faults, Lewis says:

Hey, at least the ground-based midcourse system works so well! That, by the way, is sarcasm. The assembled personages appear not to have read the National Academies report, which described the ground-based midcourse system as "fragile" and recommended stopping the procurement of the ground-based interceptor (sometimes derisively called the George Bush Interceptor.)

The last successful intercept test of the system was in 2008. Overall, the record of flight tests is 8 successes in 15 tries, or a bit over 50 percent.

Crying Wolf

Perhaps the most troubling aspect with this new revelation is that North Korea didn't announce it. Usually when North Korea says things like how they want to "break their enemies' waists," or how they found a unicorn lair proving that North Korea is the Best Korea, or how they think their country is a wonderful place for human rights —well, it's usually a lie draped in B.S. and wrapped in delusion. "We would also note that North Korea has a long history of bellicose rhetoric and threats, and today's announcement follows that familiar pattern," a spokesperson for the National Security Council said last week, during a salvo of more North Korean threats of a missile attack. An intercepted communication isn't following that pattern. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.