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Today, President Obama welcomed the president of South Korea to the White House. On the agenda: How to handle North Korea, which has threatened to attack both its southern neighbor and the United States. Could the North actually hit America or its territories? That question is hard to answer. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, one of the country's new long-range missiles might be a fake.
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GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The story began last April with a huge military parade. Western media was invited to the show, and Fox News was there when the missile trucks rolled by.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We saw one that locals said they'd never seen before. It looked, to us, pretty hefty. One expert told me it could be a new intercontinental ballistic missile from North Korea.
BRUMFIEL: North Korea has built and tested short- and medium-range missiles, and it recently put up a satellite. But this weapon was different. The so-called KN-08 sat on an enormous military truck, which would allow it to be moved around the country instead of being stuck on a launch pad.
And it looked like it had been designed to deliver a warhead a long way, even as far as the U.S. Everyone knew North Korea was working towards this kind of missile, but nobody knew whether they could actually build one.
DR. MARKUS SCHILLER: At first, I thought, wow, they finally managed it.
BRUMFIEL: Markus Schiller is an aerospace engineer working for a German company that consults on security issues. As soon as he heard about the parade, Schiller started looking for images of the missiles.
SCHILLER: It's unbelievable how much you can actually get out of the Internet.
BRUMFIEL: Looking at the videos and still photos online, he started to notice that some things seemed off.
SCHILLER: Wrong is the only word that comes into my mind.
BRUMFIEL: Six of the new missiles were in the parade, but each looked a little different from the other.
SCHILLER: The first stage of missile one was longer than the first stage of missile two, and so on.
He wasn't the only one to see discrepancies. David Wright is a rocket expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He's spent a lot of time studying North Korea's missile technology.
DR. DAVID WRIGHT: There were a lot of little details that, if you looked carefully, just not only didn't seem to make sense on each missile but didn't agree between the missiles.
BRUMFIEL: Fuel ports were in weird places. Cables looked like they weren't laid correctly. In fact, there were so many problems that most experts agree: The missiles on parade weren't real.
DR. JEFFREY LEWIS: The complicating factor is that it is a normal thing to make simulators before you make real missiles.
BRUMFIEL: Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asian nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Engineers use dummy missiles to figure out how to fit the real ones together. Crews can train with them. So the question is, were the missiles on parade pure fiction?
LEWIS: Or are they mock-ups that have been produced as part of a program that will eventually make missiles like this?
BRUMFIEL: That is the big question. Speaking at a press briefing in March, Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the intelligence community did believe the missile program is real even if the missiles in the parade turned out to be fake. But he wouldn't say how far along North Korea's program is.
ADMIRAL JAMES WINNEFELD: Our assessment of where it exists in its lifetime is something that would remain classified.
BRUMFIEL: Those without access to military data remain divided. Jeffrey Lewis says he believes the missiles are real.
LEWIS: They've spent the money to buy the trucks that will carry it around, and they've done these mock-ups. That's usually followed by a real missile.
BRUMFIEL: But Markus Schiller, the aerospace engineer who first spotted the problems, is doubtful. If these really were mock-ups, he says, all the missiles would look identical. The fact that they don't makes him think it's a ruse.
SCHILLER: I can say the most probable explanation is that all of this is a huge bluff.
BRUMFIEL: These kinds of uncertainties will make it that much more difficult to decide how to respond to North Korea the next time tensions flair. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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