The Evolving North Korean Missile Threat


2012-12-04 by Richard Weitz

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) already has sufficient missile capability to inflict major damage on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as against U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea.

The DPRK has developed several ballistic missiles types, of varying ranges and capabilities, which may be able to deliver WMD munitions to targets in South Korea and Japan. Under the guise of developing a space launch vehicle, the DPRK is working on an intercontinental-range missile capable of hitting targets as far as California and Alaska.

North Korea has tested two nuclear explosive devices and, given its past production of plutonium, likely possesses several nuclear weapons.

The DPRK’s ability to make miniaturized nuclear warheads and launch them on a ballistic missile is unproven but is likely to increase over time. The current focus of the DPRK’s WMD-related research and development efforts focus on making warheads sufficiently small and secure that they can carry nuclear or other dangerous agents on North Korea’s improving ballistic missile capacities.

The DPRK has yet to demonstrate that it has manufactured a functional nuclear warhead that can fly long distances safely atop a ballistic missile, but such a task not especially difficult, given enough time. How long it will take the DPRK to do this depends on whether North Korea has been able to obtain one of the designs for tested warheads that the A. Q. Khan illicit trafficking network was selling on the black market, which would accelerate its progress.

The DPRK ballistic missile issue assumed renewed importance in both 2006 and 2009, when Pyongyong’s decision to test a long-range ballistic missile led the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea.

In turn, the DPRK responded on each occasion with aggressive rhetoric and the testing of a nuclear explosive device. Although these tests failed, they are a clear sign that North Korea, even under its new leadership, is determined to develop an ICBM capable of reaching the United States, despite several UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting it from acquiring or testing its missiles. The April 2012 test even cost the DPRK likely food aid from the United States as part of a deal reached in late February 2012 whose terms required North Korea not to conduct any more missile tests.

The 2010 U.S. BMD Review stated that North Korea is expected to develop a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States within the next decade, despite several failed test launches of a long-range missile prototype.

North Korea’s most recent long-range launch test in 2012 failed after the rocket broke apart and crashed into the sea. The Unha-3 carrier is that same type of rocket that would be used to launch a long-range missile capable of reaching the continental United States. The DPRK unsuccessfully tested a Taepodong-2 ICBM in 2006 and 2009. In 2011, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates confirmed this estimate, stating that North Korea would likely be able to develop an ICBM in five years.

Given this estimate and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials now view North Korea as both a proliferation threat, spreading existing missiles and nuclear materials to other countries, and a direct threat to the United States. 

North Korea has a history of exchanging ballistic missiles as well as their components and technologies with other countries, especially with Iran, Pakistan, and Syria.   North Korea was one of the three states, including Libya and Iran, which benefitted from some nuclear-weapons related supplies and information distributed by the Pakistani technician A.Q. Khan.

North Korea uses its missile portfolio to enhance its own strike capabilities, compensate for its weak air force, and sell to foreign buyers.

Although internal political and bureaucratic factors may be driving such a quest, the DPRK would also like the means to threaten the U.S. homeland to deter the United States from using force against it.

U.S. officials have repeated affirmed that a mutual assured destruction relationship between the DPRK and the United States is unacceptable.

The DPRK might deliberately or accidentally use such a capability to kill millions of Americans, but more likely it would use ICBMs and other missiles as a retaliatory threat should the United States or other states seek to threaten the regime.

The DPRK could also use ICBM capabilities as a shield to negate U.S. military power while the DPRK engages in more misdeeds and provocations, such as intimidating other countries or engage in lower-level use of force, as occurred in 2010, expecting that the United States would not militarily retaliate for fear of triggering a DPRK nuclear attack.

The DPRK’s SRBM arsenal includes the KN-1 and KN-2 missiles. The KN-1 is anti-ship cruise missile with a range of about 160 kilometers, and is most probably an improved version of the Soviet Termit missile. The KN-2 is a solid-fueled, highly accurate mobile missile, representing a modified copy of the Soviet OTR-21. Other short- to medium-range DPRK missiles include the Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6. The Hwasong-5 is a modified Soviet Scud missile that is mobile, liquid-fueled, and has an estimated range of 330 km. The Hwasong-6 is a newer Scud modification. It is similar to the Hwasong-5, yet has an increased range of 550–700 km and a smaller warhead. This is the most widely deployed North Korean missile, with at least 400 missiles in use.

The North Korean medium-range ballistic missile arsenal is composed of the Nodong-1 and 2. The Nodong-1 is another Scud modification. It is liquid-fueled, road-mobile missile with a 650 kg warhead and GPS guidance. Its range is estimated to be between 1,300 and 1,600 km. The Nodong-2 is a further improved variant of the Nodong-1, successfully tested in 2006. Its range is estimated at about 2,000 km.

The DPRK has been researching and developing intermediate-range missiles and ICBMs. The Taepodong-1 is a two-stage Scud-derived missile. It was tested with a satellite payload in 1998, and flew without significant problems. It is North Korea’s longest-range operational missile, with a 4,000 km maximum range.

According to some analysts, the Taepodong-1 could have an intercontinental range of nearly 6,000 km if a third-stage rocket is adding and the payload is kept under 100 kg. The Musudan-1 is a modified copy of the Soviet R-27 sea-launched ballistic missile. The missile, also known under the names Nodong-B, Taepodong-X and BM25, has a range of 4,000 kilometers.

The Taepodong-2 is North Korea’s ICBM prototype.

Its first test occurred in 2006, when the missile failed 40 seconds after launch.  On April 5, 2009, a space booster variant was launched with a satellite on board. The missile flew several thousand kilometers before falling into the Pacific Ocean.

Estimates of the Taepodong-2’s range vary widely, from 4,500 to 10,000 km, but most estimates put the range at about 6,000-7,000 km.

With a reduced payload, the missile might be able to travel 10,000 km, which would put the western United States within its range.  The Unha 3 rocket was the North’s most recent missile test, launched on April 13, 2012. The missile, which DPRK officials described as a space launch vehicle, disintegrated approximately 90 seconds after launch.