A man watches a TV screen showing a file footage of the missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 21, 2016. North Korea fired short-range projectiles into the sea on Monday, Seoul said.

A man watches a TV screen showing a file footage of the missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 21, 2016. North Korea fired short-range projectiles into the sea on Monday, Seoul said. AP / LEE-JIN MAN

Pyongyang Forecast: More Missiles Through May

North Korea's recent launches display modest technological achievements, but that’s not why they’re flying.

North Korea’s launch of five missiles into the sea on Monday represents a “modest advancement” in technological capability for the Hermit Kingdom, but it may say more about the regime’s stability than its technical prowess.

The five KN-09 missiles flew about 120 miles. “These missiles are new. They started testing them about a year ago,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation. He called them a “particular threat to bases in South Korea.”

It was the slightly longer range of the KN-09s that North Korea launched today that gave Bennett some serious pause. “Historically, the concept has been that North Korea couldn’t reach beyond Seoul with other than its big ballistic missiles and therefore the threat to U.S. airbases in the South was more limited.”

North Korea’s provocative actions were likely to continue until May at least, said Bennett, when Pyongyang holds the 7th Worker’s Party Congress. It’s the first such event since 1980 and might be used to signal a new direction for the party. North Korea’s elites are focused on looking strong in the run-up to the event, so don’t expect North Korea to stop shooting at the sea any time soon.

Monday’s event followed Thursday’s launch of two larger Nodong missiles from a mobile missile launcher – underlining North Korea’s efforts to develop a missile force that can’t be easily wiped out.

South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that one of the Nodong missiles flew 500 miles before falling into the sea, but the other disappeared quickly from radar, suggesting failure.

Monday’s launches appear to have demonstrated similarly spotty success. “The [KN-09] launcher that fires this missile carries eight missiles,” Bennett said. “When they last fired, we saw six of the missiles work. That means two didn’t. This time we saw five missiles fly. That means three didn’t. This is a development program, but they’re having firing issues associated with this missile system. The ones that did fire, we have no idea how accurate they would be, because they’re going into the ocean.”

Large missiles like that Taepodong-2, with a range of more than 2000 miles and the capability carry a nuclear warhead (if North Korea were ever to develop one), make for scary headlines but also a very visible target. The KN-09, conversely, is not the most dangerous rocket in the world, but it “could cause some significant damage to a U.S. airbase in south Korea if they launch against it.”

What It Means: More Missiles

What happens when you keep lobbing missiles into the China Sea? You wake up surrounded by other missiles.

After North Korea sent a rocket into space in February, U.S. officials  announced that they were going to work with South Korea to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system to the area. Like most mobile anti-missile systems, THAAD consists of a radar to track incoming missiles, a lot of fire-control and support equipment, and a launcher for its interceptor missiles. THAAD-maker Lockheed Martin advertises the system as useful against short-, medium-, and long-range missiles; in a demonstration last November, it tested well against short-range missiles. But Bennett said its usefulness is less certain against KN-09s launched at a low altitude. (High altitude is in the name, after all.)

The United States has just five THAAD batteries, of which four have been activated. “Especially in peacetime, it’s hard to deploy more than one-third of the batteries one has available. It’s too much away time for the troops. Yet we already have one deployed in Guam. We are just barely getting to the point where it’s even possible to deploy a second one to South Korea,” said Bennett. Congress, he says, hasn’t done enough to support the system, and that we’re only building one a year in an environment “where we could use THAAD around the world.”

The United States has already sent eight Patriot missile batteries -- radars plus launchers -- to the peninsula, where the South Koreans also have eight versions. While the older PAC-2  variant that the South Koreans have is better against aircraft than missiles, the PAC-3, of which the United States has several, could be useful against the rockets that North Korea shot off on Monday.

“The five missiles that they fired today, that’s at the edge of what Patriot can intercept,” Bennett said. “A Patriot can probably kill those, but Patriots are usually intended to deal with the bigger missile that’s got a bigger payload. If you spend all of your Patriot missiles on these smaller rockets, you’re not going to be able to cover all the bigger missiles unless you deploy a lot more Patriots. There’s a tradeoff there.”

He says that the United States would need 25 Patriot missile batteries to cover all the critical targets in South Korea. But since the United States typically deploys them in pairs, in case one is destroyed, the number could go twice that high.

It’s a tradeoff that’s not very cost-effective for the U.S. Smaller rockets like the KN-09 can price tens of thousands of dollars but a Patriot missile ranges from $1 million to $6 million. The cost-benefit calculus of missile defense in the Korean Peninsula eludes easy answer. As Lee Fang points out for The Intercept, the United States has wasted billions in failed short- and intermediate-range missile defense programs.

Direct energy weapons that cost just $1 per round to shoot, such as the one currently deployed on the U.S. amphibious ship Ponce in the Persian Gulf, provide a potentially cheaper and sustainable solution. But the technology so far hasn’t been tested against anything like a missile.

Whether the United States decides to shoot at North Korean missiles at $1 million or $1 dollar a shot, or avoids shooting altogether, it shouldn’t expect Pyongyang to stop launching rockets seaward stop anytime soon.

“North Korean leadership culture says the leader is supposed to really appear empowered. He’s supposed to be very capable and such. Kim Jong-Un doesn’t look that way,” Bennett said. “He has had to try to take a series of actions to prepare for this Congress.” Depending on how that event proceeds, the events of the last few months could signal a "new normal," he said.