On May 12th, a high school model rocket team from North Carolina visited President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. The students were visiting Washington to participate in an annual model rocketry competition. The White House invited the students after learning one of the teams had named its tiny rocket “Trump” because, as one student told the President, “it conquers all.”
At the same time in North Korea, dawn was breaking on the next day. A very different sort of rocket team was preparing for its big launch. Over the course of May 13th, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un arrived at a large warehouse near Kusong to inspect a new missile of much greater range than anything North Korea had ever launched before. Kim watched workers bolt a warhead to the missile, lift the missile onto a heavy vehicle with a crane and pump rocket propellants into the missile using hoses.
The missile sat overnight – demonstrating that North Korea has developed the sophisticated capability to fuel its missiles hours in advance of their launch. Kim returned during the early morning of May 14th, saluting the vehicle as it drove off into the darkness toward its intended launch site three kilometers away. Shortly after dawn that day, North Korea launched the rocket, known as the Hwasong-12.
The Hwasong-12 was, by far, the longest range missile North Korea had ever tested to that point. It traveled 787 km downrange, but reached more than 2,000 kilometers in altitude. (About the distance from Boston to Miami.) North Korea had fired the rocket nearly straight up to avoid flying over Japan. Had North Korea fired the rocket on a normal trajectory to go as far as possible, the Hwasong-12 would have flown around 4500 km.
Results of a computer simulation of the CNS model of the Hwasong-12 using the GUI Missile Flyout program. The red trajectory matches the trajectory flown on May 14, 2017 – Range: 787 KM. The yellow trajectory shows a minimum energy trajectory to a maximized range of around 4,500 KM.
The Hwasong-12 was shrouded in mystery prior to its launch. North Korea publicly displayed it for the first time during its April 15th parade marking the anniversary of “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung’s birth. The new missile appeared on a vehicle that had previously carried another missile. Most experts, including those of us at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), wondered whether it was a larger version of that missile, or perhaps a smaller version of another.