Find the exclusive report on the front page of the Monday edition of the Japan Times or their Website
A long-standing goal of North Korea has been to develop a nuclear weapons program that could deliver a warhead to the United States. Slowly but surely, North Korea has improved both its nuclear weapons and its delivery systems. On July 4th 2017, North Korea tested its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile they call the Hwasong-14 (HS-14) with an estimated range from 7,500 to 9,500 kilometers. This range is adequate to hit most major cities on the west coast of the continental United States. The HS-14 could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to any of a dozen targets provided it is compact enough for the missiles’ payload section.
With nearly every major missile test that North Korea conducts, Kim Jong Un is ever so present watching with binoculars from a vantage point looking out onto the launch site. This can be a bunker, a protective movable viewing structure, or just a table on a hilltop overlooking the launch area. This test used the latter and his table had the usual paper map spread out for viewing. These maps typically show the test missiles’ intended trajectory, staging points, and splash down area.
On the July 4th test, something abnormal was found pertaining to the predicted trajectory on the paper map in front of Kim at the viewing area. Close analysis of the map appears to show the splash down point of the missile just off Okushiri Island located west of Hokkaido, Japan. That trajectory could have potentially put the missile inside Japans’ Territorial Waters, the area of sovereign waters 12 nautical miles off any country. This area is directly controlled under the nation's laws and includes airspace above and the seabed below.
Nathan J Hunt, Senior Image Analyst at Strategic Sentinel, found the anomaly and was able to enhance the photo to make the trajectory line more apparent. The process of which it was found included a comparison of the July 4th HS-14 launch trajectory map and the May 14th HS-12 launch trajectory map. The missiles share a few characteristics and their trajectory maps were of the same format. This allowed the analysts to compare the two similar maps and derive that the HS-14 trajectory, as it appears, is significantly closer to Japan than the HS-12 test.
The missile fell short of this potential target area and into deeper waters farther east of Hokkaido in Japans’ Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. Nonetheless, this missile still flew to an altitude of 2,802 kilometers and covered a horizontal distance of 933 kilometers over 39 minutes of flight, marking one of the most successful North Korean missile tests to date.
The most important question that arises from this abnormality is; Why would North Korea depict the trajectory of the missile to be well within Japanese territory? This is an obvious provocation on their part that could have damaging consequences on themselves even if they never intended the missile to fly that far and impact at that point.
Based on available date from these photos and data from the test, the actual impact point of the missile out to sea and the projected impact point on the map appear to be within a similar azimuth. This would be significant since it means the missile was following a similar trajectory to the one depicted in the picture and fell short of the apparent target area instead of traveling on an altogether different course. It should be noted however, that while they may appear to be on the same azimuth, it could be a coincidence and not be connected to the projected trajectory.
One speculation suggests that the upper stage of the HS-14 cutoff prematurely, causing the apogee (highest altitude achieved) and horizontal distance traveled to be reduced. This could have been due to several reasons such as an intentional termination from ground controllers or a mechanical issue. It has also been speculated that perhaps the upper stage and or the lower stage were under fueled. This also would have resulted in a reduced apogee and horizontal distance. Nonetheless, the HS-14 could have easily reached anywhere in Japan even on its lofted trajectory with reduced performance.
It is however unlikely that North Korea actually intended the missile to travel along the abnormal trajectory that has been found. Such a move would be dangerous on the part of North Korea and could have resulted in a military response from Japan to safeguard its territory.
Since the HS-14 could have easily traveled anywhere into Japanese territory even on its lofted trajectory, another theory presents itself that the trajectory shown on the map was meant to be a signal to Japan and its allies. By only depicted the proposed trajectory on the map, North Korea does not actually have to commit its missile to that flightpath. Simply releasing the photos showing what could have been is enough without having to cause a major diplomatic issue. It is possible that North Korea depicted such a provocative trajectory in an attempt to make a point towards Japan to change its behavior regarding their North Korean policies. North Korea most certainly knew by taking pictures of the trajectory map and making them public that several government and think tank organizations would take apart the pictures looking for clues.
Conversely, the answer may lie within our own infographic above. North Korea, having previously established that the line on the paper trajectory map of the May HS-12 test is the intended flightpath of the missile, staging points, and splash down area, they may have depicted an increased flightpath in an attempt to exaggerate the performance of the HS-14. This move is plausible since North Korea desperately wants a capable ICBM and would like to show the world that it has reached the necessary technological level.
It is believed to be unlikely that this is a printing error or an issue with the camera taking the photo. These maps are presentation pieces made specifically for each individual test launch and are not mass produced nor used in any other format currently known. This makes the likely hood of an error extremely low, even more so when considering that they are exclusively produced for Kim Jong Un’s viewing. If there was an issue with the camera, the line showing the trajectory would most likely not be so clear where it begins and ends.
It is important to state that at this present time, Strategic Sentinel and experts from 38North cannot definitively ascertain the true reason North Korea produced a trajectory map which depicts such a close approach to Japan. We have presented a couple of speculative arguments, but do not have the required information to definitively say anything other than this map clearly shows a termination point near Okushiri Island, Japan.
Data from North Korea’s most recent test of the HS-14 on July 28th provides more background to this peculiar find. This test is the most successful ICBM test to date, flying more than 3,700 km in altitude and around 1000km in distance. The missile came so close to Hokkaido, Japan that video was able to film segments of the splash down. The area which the missile landed was just north of Okushiri Island. The projected trajectory of the paper map shown to Kim for this specific test also shows a very similar splash down area to the north. The actual landing area for this test and the projected landing area for the July 4th test are very similar and relatively nearby. However, this test flew more to the north than what the July 4th trajectory depicts. Any resemblance could merely be coincidence.
We would like to thank John Schilling and Joseph Bermudez, experts on North Korea from 38North, for consulting on this report. Mr. Schilling is an aerospace engineer with more than twenty years of experience, specializing in missile and spacecraft propulsion and mission analysis, and Mr. Bermudez is a Strategic Advisor for AllSource Analysis, Inc.