The unsuccessful test launch of a North Korean medium-range missile on Saturday has fueled media speculation the missile blew up as a result of U.S. clandestine cyber attacks.
Asked if secret U.S. intervention caused the explosion of the North Korean test launch, White House Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland said Sunday, “We can’t talk about secret intelligence and things that might have been done, covert operations that might have happened.”
If U.S. intelligence succeeded in getting into the supply chain used by North Korea to acquire parts for missiles from abroad, the information likely would be held in an ultra-secret special-access program and its disclosure to the public unlikely.
Another reason for the missile failures could be North Korea’s shift from liquid fuel to solid fuel, a more challenging technology to master.
The U.S. sabotage speculation is based on a New York Times report in March that reported the Trump administration had inherited a secret intelligence operation to conduct cyber and electronic attacks aimed at sabotaging North Korean missile launches.
Getting inside North Korea’s homemade missile programs would be very difficult since Pyongyang manufactures several types of short-, medium- and long-range missiles. Still Pyongyang acquires parts from abroad, including China and Russia that could have been intercepted and doctored to sabotage flight tests.
The Pacific Command said the North Korean missile was launched at 5:21 p.m. EDT near Sinpo, a port city on the Sea of Japan where North Korea is developing its solid-fueled KN-11 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
“The missile blew up almost immediately,” the command said in a statement.
The Sinpo failure was at least the third missile to blow up after launch from that location. Two other failed test launches took place there last year, on April 23 and July 9. On Aug. 24, a KN-11 flew around 310 miles, however.
Other failed North Korean missile launches last year included three Nodong medium-range missiles, and six failures of the intermediate-range Musudan missile, according to a United Nations report. Both missiles use liquid fuel.
Doubts on Iran nuclear deal
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson notified Congress on Wednesday that Iran was complying with the 2015 international agreement on its nuclear program.
In the first such review by the Trump administration, Mr. Tillerson stated in a letter to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan that Tehran has met the compliance conditions outlined in the 2015 Nuclear Agreement Review Act, passed by Congress amid doubts about the accord.
“Notwithstanding, Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror through many platforms and methods,” Mr. Tillerson stated, noting that President Trump ordered an interagency review of the accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The review “will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States,” he said.
The statement suggests the Trump administration could re-impose sanctions on Iran, something Tehran has said would lead it to pull out of a deal critics say will allow the Islamic republic to develop nuclear arms in 10 years.
The Iran deal permits uranium enrichment and calls for “snap-back” sanctions if Tehran fails to abide by its terms, which are aimed at preventing development of nuclear arms.
The JCPOA restricts extensive international monitoring to declared nuclear facilities and calls upon Iran to permit inspections when any suspicious facilities are spotted.
However, Iran in the past has stymied international monitoring of suspect nuclear sites, like the Parchin facility that was not included in the Iran deal. Parchin, located some 20 miles southeast of Tehran, was the location for most of Iran’s past nuclear arms-related work.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a critic of the Iran deal when he was a Republican member of Congress, said recently that intelligence estimates of Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord remain uncertain.
“I don’t want to say much about their compliance with the agreement,” Mr. Pompeo said during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week. “I prefer to present that to the president and let him communicate that. You should know we are actively engaged in a lot of work to assist the president in making sure he has an understanding of where the Iranians are complying and where they might not be.”
Mr. Pompeo then suggested Iran could cheat as Syria did in hiding chemical weapons that were required to be given up under an Obama administration-brokered agreement.
“We should all be mindful, given what took place in Syria, and go back and read that JCPOA and what it talks about in terms of declared facilities and undeclared facilities, and how much access the IAEA will have to each of those two very distinct groups,” Mr. Pompeo said.
“So that might suggest to you what level of certainty we can ever hope to present to the commander-in-chief,” he said.
Mr. Pompeo also said the Iran nuclear agreement has not led to a more benign Iran, as agreement supporters predicted would take place.
Among the increasing threats are Iran’s growing missile capabilities, as well as Iranian subversion in Iraq and Yemen. “The list of Iranian transgressions has increased dramatically since the date that the JCPOA was signed,” he said.
Missile parade shows Chinese launchers
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, says photo analysis of the parade showed off what appear to be two new long-range solid-fuel missiles on Chinese or Chinese-design launchers.
One of the missiles is a medium-range ballistic missile similar in size to the Chinese DF-21 — the weapon Beijing has fashioned into a long-range anti-ship missile.
“While the images do not confirm overall Chinese assistance for this new North Korean missile, the truck cab towing the missile is clearly based on the Chinese-made Sinotruk A7 tractor-trailer truck cab design,” said Mr. Fisher.
The second missile shown in Pyongyang last week was contained in a much larger tube carried on a 16-wheel mobile launcher made by the Sanjiang Special Truck Corp., part of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC).
“The size of this new large missile launch tube indicates North Korea may be developing a new solid-fuel missile larger than the liquid-fueled KN-08 and KN-14 revealed in 2012 and 2014,” Mr. Fisher said.
Further evidence of China-North Korean missile cooperation means “it would be very dangerous to assume that China has indeed changed its longstanding policies of supporting the North Korean regime,” Mr. Fisher said.
“Washington should demand that China immediately reveal publicly the full extent of its direct and indirect support for a number of new North Korean weapons, to include the new solid-fuel ICBM, the KN-08/14 liquid-fueled ICBM, the KN-06 fourth-generation anti-aircraft missile and the new precision guided artillery rocket,” he said.
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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