North Korea faked test of massive new ICBM, analysts conclude, but question of what was launched remains
North Korea has a history of doctoring footage or reusing old images, but it would be ‘a whole new level’ if they were lying about the successful test of a major new weapon
SEOUL — Reports suggest North Korea’s biggest missile test ever may not have been what it seemed, raising new questions over the secretive country’s banned weapons program.
North Korea said it had test-fired its new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Thursday, the first test of a missile that size since 2017.
North Korean state media heralded the launch as an “unprecedented miracle,” and South Korean and Japanese officials independently confirmed flight data that showed it flew higher and longer than any previous test.
But new details – including discrepancies spotted in the North’s heavily stylized video featuring leader Kim Jong Un overseeing the launch in a leather jacket and sunglasses – have poked holes in Pyongyang’s claims.
“The biggest question now is what was launched on March 24,” said Colin Zwirko, a senior analytical correspondent with NK Pro, a Seoul-based website that monitors North Korea.
He has examined commercial satellite imagery and footage released by state media and he says discrepancies in weather, sunlight, and other factors suggest the launch shown by North Korea happened on another day.
“I’ve been able to determine that there’s some sort of deception going on, but the question remains: did they test another Hwasong-17 and they’re just not showing us, or did they test something else?” Zwirko said.
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The U.S.-based James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) concluded that some of the North Korean footage is most likely from a test on the morning of March 16 that South Korea said failed shortly after launch, exploding in midair over Pyongyang. North Korea never acknowledged that launch or a failure.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency has cited unnamed sources who said intelligence officials in Seoul and Washington believed that North Korea then tested a Hwasong-15 ICBM on Thursday, an older and slightly smaller type it had last launched in late 2017.
South Korea’s defence ministry has not confirmed that conclusion. On Friday, a senior U.S. defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, deflected when asked whether the latest launch was really the new missile.
“We know this is a test of a long-range ballistic missile and clearly they try to learn from each of these tests to try to develop their capability further,” the official said. “But I am going to refrain from talking about it too specifically as we’re still analyzing our own intelligence on it.”