LEFT IN THE DARK: Even U.S. did not suspect secret moves before December missile launch

February 16, 2013

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent

Despite much-vaunted U.S. intelligence technology, North Korea managed to almost completely conceal preparations for its missile launch last December.

On Dec. 12, North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile from its Tongchang-ri base in North Phyongan province.

The United States used spy satellites and very high-altitude surveillance aircraft in an effort to pinpoint the date of the launch beforehand, which it had planned to share with Japan and South Korea.

But an analysis of events leading up to the launch shows that North Korea kept the United States and its allies in the dark with a simple ruse: parking trailers near the launch pad and pretending to reconsider the launch window.

On Dec. 8, trailers that are used to transport missile parts were lined up around the launch pad. Spy satellite photos of one trailer led analysts to conclude the 22-meter-long vehicle had been used to transport the first stage of a rocket.

Intelligence officers began speculating that North Korea might be removing missile parts from the launch pad.

As if to encourage that line of reasoning, the Korean Central News Agency transmitted a report early Dec. 9 that said careful consideration was being given to coordinating the timing of the launch.

On Dec. 10, North Korea announced it was extending the possible launch window to Dec. 29 from the earlier period up to Dec. 22.

Other trailers were also brought to the area between the launch pad and the building where the missile was assembled.

Around this time, officials at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing began providing information to Chinese military and government officials that indicated the launch date was being pushed back.

South Korea intercepted the misinformation that North Korea was providing China, and also picked up communications at Tongchang-ri that seemed to indicate missile parts were being removed from the launch pad.

South Korean government officials began briefing reporters off the record about their prediction that the launch would be delayed.

At 1 p.m. on Dec. 11, the day before the launch, Japanese government officials received puzzling video images obtained from a U.S.-operated Keyhole spy satellite and sent through military channels to Japan and South Korea.

The images showed a number of small, black dots gathered near the launch pad.

The Keyhole satellite can identify objects on the ground that are as small as 30 centimeters. The images showed enough detail that officials were able to conclude that the "black dots" were water cannon trucks used to extinguish fires that may occur when the missile is ignited.

The images led some Japanese government officials to state that a launch was imminent. At 8 a.m. on Dec. 12, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda told assembled Cabinet ministers to remain vigilant.

But North Korea's efforts at concealment had been so effective that no one at the meeting could foresee the launch would come just one hour and 49 minutes later.

After the launch, officials from the CIA, the State Department and the Pentagon held a closed-door briefing in Washington for U.S. senators and representatives involved in foreign affairs.

According to a congressional source, the CIA officials conceded that the launch took them by surprise.


A commentary in the Dec. 14 edition of the Rodong Sinmun, mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, provided officials in Japan and the United States with clues to the efforts taken by Pyongyang to conceal the timing of the launch.

The article noted that Japan and the United States had deployed naval vessels with electronic jamming equipment and equipped with interceptor missiles.

According to sources knowledgeable about North Korean affairs, after the failed missile launch in April 2012, North Korean authorities told a group of party elite that "the United States used radio signals to interfere with our rocket launch."

The EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft used by the U.S. military based in Japan has the capability of amplifying and jamming radio signals that North Korea transmits to guide its long-range missiles.

At the same time, North Korea had publicly declared that the planned launch was of a rocket with a satellite payload to augment its assertion that the launch was a peaceful venture into space.

Political and meteorological considerations also pushed North Korea into launching the missile on Dec. 12.

On April 12, 2012, North Korea went ahead with a launch of a long-range ballistic missile even though winds of about 90 knots were recorded in the upper atmosphere. That launch ended in failure.

When Japan launched its 22nd H-2A rocket on Jan. 27, the wind limit was 41 knots.

Kim Jong Un was scheduled to be promoted to first secretary of the Workers' Party at the Supreme People's Assembly that was due to convene on April 13.

Last December, North Korea was preparing to mark the first anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il on Dec. 17. However, wind speeds were in excess of 100 knots on most days.

Dec. 12 was unusual because winds had dropped to levels of about 55 knots. Moreover, weather forecasts indicated a worsening of conditions from Dec. 13.

North Korea apparently decided to go ahead with the Dec. 12 launch after taking into consideration the weather and scheduled political events. It was forced into keeping that date a secret from Japan, the United States and South Korea to avoid a second failed launch.

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent
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Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers leave the Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture on Dec. 6, 2012, as North Korea geared up to test launch a ballistic missile. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers leave the Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture on Dec. 6, 2012, as North Korea geared up to test launch a ballistic missile. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Maritime Self-Defense Force Aegis destroyers leave the Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture on Dec. 6, 2012, as North Korea geared up to test launch a ballistic missile. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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