North Korean state media claimed it was a successful test of the Hwasong-17, a massive new missile that the country revealed in October 2020, which experts believe is being designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads. Pyongyang released photos from a variety of angles, and a dramatic and stylized video to show off the launch.
But a close analysis by independent analysts using satellite imagery, weather forecasts and state media footage raised questions about North Korea’s claims.
“North Korea’s version of events is misleading at best, and possibly a complete fabrication of a successful Hwasong-17 test at worst,” wrote Colin Zwirko, senior analyst at Seoul-based North Korea website NK News who first revealed the discrepancies.
After reviewing the details of the launch, South Korean officials believe that the missile launched may be different from the Hwasong-17, according to a South Korean official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive information.
The launch appeared to be a modified version of the Hwasong-15, an older model that is slightly smaller than the Hwasong-17 and was the last ICBM that North Korea tested in 2017, according to a US official familiar with the matter who spoke anonymously to share sensitive details. The missile was modified to fly higher and farther than it did in 2017, the official said.
Still, the test show that North Korea is making incremental progress in improving its ICBM capability, the US official said.
Pyongyang has tested a flurry of missiles lately, most recently on Feb. 27, March 5, March 16 and the latest on March 24.
North Koreans had described the Feb. 27 and March 5 ballistic missile tests as space launches, but South Korean and US officials later said the tests were apparently intended to try out parts of the missile system ahead of a full launch of a large new ICBM.
On March 16, North Korea tested a suspected ballistic weapon that appeared to have exploded in midair within minutes of launching, after reaching an altitude of less than 20 kilometers (12 miles). North Korea did not release any information about that launch.
Eight days later, it claimed it successfully tested the Hwasong-17, which is now under question.
One theory under discussion among US and South Korean officials is that North Korea may have tested its long-awaited Hwasong-17 on March 16, but failed — then launched the modified Hwasong-15 the next week and claimed that it was a successful test of the Hwasong-17.
NK News found that when Pyongyang claimed to have release photos and videos allegedly taken during the March 24 test, it probably used images from an earlier test on or before March 16.
“While North Korea publicly reported that [the March 24 launch] was of the new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic, intelligence authorities of South Korea and the United States are closely analyzing it with multiple possibilities in view,” said a South Korean military official in a March 25 briefing to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
The senior US defense official declined to describe details of the launch, but said in his own anonymous briefing that it was “a long-range ballistic missile and clearly they try to learn from each of these tests and to try to develop their capability further. ”
Japanese officials, however, said they stand by their initial assessment that the missile was a new type of ICBM. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Monday that “the government believes that the missile fired was a new ICBM-class ballistic missile, and there is no change in our analysis at this time.”
North Korea has not yet responded to the skepticism over whether it tested the new missile. In fact, on Monday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doubled down on the claim, congratulating those who worked on the latest missile test and saying they were part of a “sacred cause” to develop nuclear capability, state media reported.
Meanwhile, South Korean Yonhap news agency reported on Sunday, citing anonymous South Korean government sources, that North Korea may be building a shortcut to a tunnel underground, possibly in an attempt to resume nuclear testing halted in 2017.
Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo contributed to this report.