Cross-posted from TotalWonkerr.com.

Few things are more curious than how senior Russian officials have described the more spectacular North Korean missile and nuclear developments of recent years. Compared to Japan, South Korea, and the U.S., the Russians are outliers.

First, recall the multiple missile launches of July 5, 2006. The synoptic view is that North Korea launched seven missiles, including a TD-2, which failed seconds into flight. The rest were SRBMs and MRBMs.

And here is the Russian view:

05/07/2006 14:12 MOSCOW, July 5 (RIA Novosti) – Russia most senior army officer said Wednesday that North Korea may have fired 10 missiles – four more than first thought – in tests late Tuesday night.

“According to some information, North Korea launched 10 missiles of different classes,” Chief of the General Staff Yury Balyuevsky, adding that they could have been intercontinental ballistic missiles.

It seems, moreover, that Russian early warning radars could not see the missile launches. It’s not at all clear why General Baluyevsky concluded what he did.

Then there was the nuclear test of Oct. 9, 2006:

Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the North Korean nuclear device was the equivalent of 5 to 15 kilotons of TNT. Calculations based on the US Geological Survey and South Korean results suggest an explosion between 550 tons to 1 kiloton of TNT.

And now, the Unha-2. U.S. Northern Command said it went “splash”:

Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean.

No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry said it went “zoom”:

Утром 5 апреля КНДР осуществила запуск на околоземную орбиту искусственного спутника Земли. По данным российских средств контроля воздушного и космического пространства траектория запуска не проходила над территорией Российской Федерации. В настоящее время уточняются параметры орбиты спутника.

CNN.com renders the above as:

“North Korea sent an artificial satellite into an Earth orbit on the morning of April 5. The parameters of the satellite’s orbit are being specified now,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko said in a statement on the ministry’s Web site.

(Credit is due to a sharp-eyed ACW commenter.)

Update: Here’s the official translation.

What’s behind these differences in perception? I only wish I knew. It’s certainly unnerving that senior officials in Moscow seem to have such… unique understandings of nuclear and missile events on the Russian territorial periphery.

Be Perturbed. Be Very Perturbed.
While it’s a positive scandal that RAMOS and JDEC have fallen by the wayside, the problem seems like much more than a matter of a lack of common sensors, information, or operating picture. The RF-US disputes over Euro-GMD and the Iranian missile threat also come to mind.

But the North Korea perception gap is especially troubling for a reason that’s received little attention in national security debates. If North Korea were to launch an ICBM towards the western half of North America, and the U.S. were to launch GMD interceptors from its Alaskan base, the intercept attempts would occur over Russian soil.

Here’s a handy depiction of the scenario, courtesy of Ted Postol. Red tracks are NK ICBMs, blue tracks are GMD interceptors, black fans are EW radars:

For an NK ICBM aimed at any point in North America, the interceptors would fly out in the direction of Russia. And interceptors that didn’t intercept would continue towards, well, a lot of potential places in Russia and beyond:

For comparison, the report of the NAS panel on Conventional Prompt Global Strike endorsed the Conventional Trident Modification in large part because conventional ICBMs would have to overfly Russia to get anywhere useful, a proposition the panel deemed unacceptable.

With GMD, unfortunately, the U.S. doesn’t get the choice of when and where to fire, only whether to fire. This delicate and under-appreciated consideration would make the actual use of GMD the world’s biggest game of Russian Roulette.

Due credit: Elaine Bunn at NDU discussed this problem in her analysis of missile-defense deployment.

Update: Can Russia detect North Korean missile launches? It doesn’t look like it.