North Korean Missiles and Chinese Passenger Aircraft

By | March 12, 2014 | 3 Comments

KPA Missile Launcher in Huanqiu Shibao, March 11 2014

The Chinese photograph caption to Wang Hongguang’s article personalizes things: “Kim Jong-un observes KPA rocket launch.” | Image: Huanqiu Shibao.

These days, nothing gets public opinion in a froth as much as danger to commercial air travel. And few countries in the world have such an impeccable (or unfortunate) sense of timing as does the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, whose missile test on March 4 came within minutes of a Chinese commercial jet on its way from Tokyo to Shenyang. Now, the nervousness and agitation being produced by the disappeared Malaysia Air flight from Kuala Lampur to Beijing is being melded in the Chinese media with pre-existing apprehensions over North Korea’s insensitivity and the sense that the DPRK is a bona fide regional danger.

The harbinger of the warnings is PLA General Wang Hongguang, best known to our readers (and members of the US National Security Council) as the author of a December op-ed criticizing the North Korean nuclear program as a clear and present danger to China.

The following critical op-ed on the missile/airliner incident by General Wang originally appeared in Chinese in the Huanqiu Shibao yesterday morning, and was then rendered into English last night for the Global Times. We strongly prefer the Chinese version, because it is far more detailed and gives a much better sense of Wang’s anger at North Korea’s lack of coordination with “the relevant authorities” in China.

It is also important to note that such editorials go beyond “steam valve” value. When they wind up being read by American policy makers and influencers, such articles serve an important function by indicating (some might say “feinting toward”) a possible turn of Beijing’s policy toward Pyongyang and the emergence of a more critical front bent toward containment of the DPRK. In other words, the writing serves a particular purpose – or it never would have been published.

China wants to be a stakeholder in the conversation over North Korea, it wants the North Koreans to be genuinely concerned with the long-term impact of a Chinese public that is free to express (many of) its own opinions with respect to international affairs, and it wants to point out also to the Chinese public that the PRC is not giving Kim Jong-un carte blanche.

In the ginger aftermath of the purge of Jang Song-taek, it appears that Chinese media is less and less prone to protect Kim Jong-un’s personality from attack online. And the picture caption for this particular article is a case in point: It implies that Kim Jong-un was personally behind the rocket launches and, by extension, was personally responsible for the danger to Chinese civilians. The PRC has always been on tenterhooks when it comes to Kim family adventurism (see: June 1950 and summer 1968), so the trend toward caution is not new.

What is “newsworthy” in the new context, though, is how the PRC is guiding its own rhetorical missiles more at Pyongyang, and less at Seoul. The eruption of some 3000 comments on General Wang’s op-ed might indicate as much.

Finally, North Korea’s open response to China’s critiques from the get-go has been strident, ubiquitous, and forceful. While the rhetorical attacks have been aimed at “the United States and its henchmen” on this issue, it is very obvious who the “henchmen” are – this is not just South Korea and Japan, but very clearly China, which has been pressing its case from the outset. North Korean people are confining their “spontaneous” commentary on the issue (given to reporters in city parks, or KCNA reporters in military barracks) to attacks on the United States, but the intent and target of the messages – which amount, politely, to a demand that China simply “shut up” about the issue – are exceedingly clear.

At a time when North Korea and China might otherwise be huddling together in criticism of US-ROK military drills (not to mention the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights), the two ostensible allies are trading barbs in public about an incident that could have ended up nearly as badly as the present Malaysia Airlines imbroglio. And with every call for closer coordination, the reality of poor communication (and the lack of desire of at least one side to communicate at all) becomes ever more clear.

Wang Hongguang [王洪光], “朝火箭弹穿越中国航线很危险 / “North Korean missiles passing through Chinese air routes is very dangerous,” Huanqiu Shibao, March 11, 2014.   

South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense stated last week that North Korea had fired a number of short-range missiles toward the East Sea (Sea of Japan)  and through the air passenger route from Tokyo-Shenyang and a [large] China Southern Airlines passenger jet went through the trajectory of one of these rockets only six minutes later.

After the report came out about this incursion [穿越行动], the relevant authorities [有关部门] and the society have not paid sufficient attention. Online, views are being expressed that Seoul is “making a fuss about it” and “driving a wedge between Beijing and Pyongyang.” But if the news is true, I believe that from a military perspective, the act by North Korea was highly risky.

Military drills involve coordination of air and artillery forces [which should yield] important contents from the drill. Without such coordination, under conditions of actual war, grave and accidental mutual damage can be inflicted.  North Korean 300 mm rocket launchers have a range of of 50-60 kilometers, , their biggest rockets have a maximum trajectory height of about 14,000 meters , and their missiles have a range of 150 km , and a maximum trajectory height of about 30,000 meters .

Given that the maximum altitude of a large commercial jet is between 10,000 and 12,000 meters, they fall under the maximum trajectory height of [North Korea’s] biggest rockets. If a missile intersected with the flight path, this creates one opportunity for a collision; if we include the return flight trajectory, there are two opportunities for collision. The present case has a time differential of six minutes [between the North Korean missile and the Chinese airliner]; in reality, this is an extremely brief time interval.

To give an example from actual combat: When artillery strikes and air force attacks are combined on the same area , the fire interval between the two attacks is generally coordinated at 2-3 minutes. This is done in order to prevent accidental casualties. During military exercises, the tendency is to lengthen this [coordination] interval to within 10 minutes. 6 minutes is precisely between 2 and 10 minutes, and thus within the [appropriate] interval to prevent accidental injuries.  But [in this case], civil aviation did not know in advance, and received no warning. Military drills wish to avoid causing accidental harm to civilian aircraft, and at the time of military drills, the leaders of the drills must inform the officials in charge of airspace [空管部门] so that civilian airliners can adjust their time; even if the time of civilian flights is moved back half a day, it is done to guarantee the total safety of civilian aviation.

This time,  North Korea launched its  missiles off the east coast and in the direction of the Sea of Japan. Given that they were far from China’s territory, it would be difficult for us to track their trajectory.  Because the launch was anticipated to pass through the Tokyo-Shenyang airline route, which might trigger deadly threats [造成重大威胁] to the safety of flights on this passage, Pyongyang should have informed China and its relevant aviation bodies in advance of launching the missiles, forecasting the time and indicating, in effect, that civilian aircraft would need to get out of the way.

Nonetheless, North Korea knew clearly that the missiles would run across this airline and (as the North Koreans could clearly see from their radar) that the China Southern Airlines passenger jet was expected to fly into the danger zone. But it still gave the order to fire!   The behavior of the North Korean side has been extremely   unfriendly toward China [朝方行为是对中国极大的不友好]. The relevant departments certainly cannot sit idly by and watch. Using language like “Without any doubt, China will verify the relevant situation with the relevant party and express necessary concerns over” or “regular flights over North Korea have gone on without any special situation” is just “sketching with light shades” [i.e., playing down the situation] and is not appropriate. Instead, the Chinese authorities must strongly criticize [应该严词批评] , and make North Korea guarantee that henceforth, no similar incident will happen again.

Source: Wang Hongguang [王洪光], “朝火箭弹穿越中国航线很危险 /  “North Korean missiles passing through Chinese air routes is very dangerous,” Huanqiu Shibao, March 11, 2014.  Translation by Adam Cathcart.

A heavily-modified English translation of Wang Hongguang’s op-ed was published about 12 hours after the original Chinese, entitled  “North Korean missile recklessness deserves firm response from China,” Global Times, March 11, 2014.




  1. To be fair, Kim Jong Un DID observe the launch shown in that particular photo. BUT, the launch in that photo happened last October and is unrelated to the one that almost hit a Chinese airliner. My guess is that the authors of the Chinese article knew this, but put the two together in hopes that readers would draw a connection that isn’t there.

  2. John, agreed! Small details like this do have a way of adding up. Kim Jong-un is not winning many friends among the Chinese public, at any rate.

  3. It’s a cliché and may actually reveal my lack of familiarity with the issue, but to me, this situation looks as “static” as a half-informed German philosopher once described Chinese history.

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose? Yes, China is creating some more distance between itself and Pyongyang – a few yards – right now, but this distance is bound to get narrowed again, soon.

    Unless, that is, Beijing felt it could do without the North Korean regime. But only the outcome would be news.