The Evolving North Korea’s Missile Arsenal: A Direct and Proliferation Threat

The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock)

2013-03-27 by Richard Weitz

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is working on an intercontinental-range missile (ICBM) capable of hitting targets as far as California and Alaska. In 1998, 2006, 2009, April 2012, and most recently in December 2012, the DPRK test launched a three-stage long-range missile designed to reach the continental United States.

Although the first four tests failed, the most recent one succeeded.

North Korea has threatened to launch additional missile tests in coming years.

At times, the DPRK justifies its long-range missile tests under the guise of developing a space launch vehicle. Long-range rockets designed as space delivery vehicles and long-range ballistic missiles intended to carry warheads use similar engines, boosters, and other technologies, though a satellite can be made lighter than a nuclear warhead, which needs a dense heat shield to withstand the high temperatures encountered in reentering the earth’s atmosphere.

The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite the DPRK placed in orbit in December 2012 weighs an estimated 100 kilograms, whereas as typical nuclear warhead weighs ten times more, though a good designer can make them smaller and therefore lighter.  The DPRK’s Taepodong (DPRK-named as Paektusan) long-range missiles use essentially the same technology as Unha and Paektusan rockets.

These missiles and rockets have a potential range of perhaps 10,000-13,000 kilometers, sufficient to reach the Australia, the Continental United States, and all of Russia and East Europe.

The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock)
The North Korean Challenge is a Looming Threat to Global Stability (Credit image: Bigstock) 

These determined efforts to develop an ICBM are a clear sign that North Korea, even under the new generation of leaders in Pyongyang, led by Kim Jong-un, who assumed office in December 2011, is determined to develop a capacity to directly attack the U.S. homeland with long-range ballistic missiles.

These tests occurred despite comprehensive international efforts to prevent them, including lobbying by Beijing and Moscow, offers of aid by the United States, and several UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting the DPRK from acquiring or testing missiles. The April 2012 test came even at the cost of the DPRK’s losing conditionally pledged 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 DPRK ballistic missile issue assumed elevated importance in 2006 and 2009, when Pyongyang’s missile tests led the UN Security Council to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. In turn, the DPRK responded on each occasion with aggressive rhetoric and the testing of a nuclear explosive device. But North Korea went ahead with its most recent nuclear test in February 2013 despite a relatively mild international response to the DPRK’s December 2012 missile launch.

The DPRK already has sufficient missile capabilities 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 a nuclear warhead against targets in South Korea and Japan. 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 missiles in the DPRK’s arsenal include the Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6. Western sources call both types the Rodong; they similar to the Shahab-3 and Pakistan’s Ghauri II (Hatf V)—all these systems are based on the original Soviet Scud missile, though they often have longer ranges and other improvements. 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 single-stage 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 4,000km 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 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers.

The Taepodong-2 is North Korea’s dedicated 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, the DPRK’s most recent missile test vehicle, was launched on April 13 and December 11 in 2012. The first test of the missile, which DPRK officials described as a space launch vehicle, disintegrated approximately 90 seconds after launch.  The rocket worked fine in the December 2012 test, but the satellite does not appear to be operational.

Whatever their domestic and regional purposes, the repeated tests can best be interpreted in offensive terms.

They place the DPRK in a better negotiating position with its neighbors by bolstering the North’s claims to be a de facto nuclear weapons state on the par of India and Pakistan. Although internal political and bureaucratic factors may be driving Pyongyang’s problematic behavior as well, the DPRK would clearly like the means to threaten the U.S. homeland to deter U.S. officials from using force against it.

Since the accuracy of its longer-range missiles is poor, the DPRK wants to arm them with nuclear rather than much less-powerful conventional warheads.

North Korea has already tested three nuclear explosive devices and, given its estimated past production of plutonium, likely possesses several additional nuclear weapons. According to the Institute for Science and International Security, the DPRK currently has sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 18 nuclear warheads.

North Korea also seems prepared to manufacture more fissile material by enriching its own ample supplies of natural uranium.

“The use of both [weapon-grade uranium] and plutonium could allow for more total fissile material in a fission device and a higher explosive yield than possible with plutonium alone,” the ISIS analysts wrote. “Weapon-grade uranium would allow for designs involving thermonuclear concepts that could not be achieved with designs only using plutonium.”

The DPRK’s related research and development efforts focus on making warheads sufficiently small and secure that they can carry a nuclear weapon on North Korea’s increasing the accuracy and payload of its ballistic missiles. Pyongyang has yet to demonstrate that it has manufactured a functional nuclear warhead that can fly long distances safely atop a ballistic missile and then reenter the earth’s atmosphere with sufficient safety and accuracy. The North’s first two tests of a nuclear explosive device were not seen as entirely successful, perhaps due to faults in the design of the warhead.

The process of miniaturizing even a functioning nuclear weapon to place it inside a warhead is complex since it has to be able to withstand the tremendous forces that the warhead encounters during launch and reentry. 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 a decade.  In 2011, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates confirmed this estimate while visiting China, stating that North Korea would likely be able to develop an ICBM in five years.

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 a decade.  In 2011, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates shortened this estimate while visiting China, stating that North Korea would likely be able to develop an ICBM in five years.

It may be that DPRK’s timeline to develop a functioning warhead depends on whether Pyongyang has been able to obtain one of the copies of the designs for a Chinese-implosion warhead that the A. Q. Khan illicit trafficking network was selling on the black market.

This would accelerate its progress, especially if North Korea uses its new supply of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU), for which these tested warheads were designed.

The DPRK reportedly obtained designs for centrifuges for enriching uranium from the Khan network.

Another question is how much nuclear- and missile-related assistance the DPRK has and will receive from other foreign countries, such as China and Iran.

The DPRK leadership would also want to convince others that the warhead and missiles could work in an operational setting, so this might require more nuclear warhead and ballistic missile tests. Nonetheless, such tasks are not especially difficult if the DPRK is given enough time and additional opportunities for long-range missile testing.

North Korea’s growing missile and nuclear capabilities confront the new governments in China, Japan, and South Korea, along with the United States, with a serious challenge.

The upsurge in tensions in 2009 saw North Korea withdraw from the Six-Party Talks among China, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea, and the United States. These discussions have sought to address the threat presented by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program to the nuclear nonproliferation regime as well as regional security. Since they began in August 2003, fundamental objective of the Six-Party Talks has been to end the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program in return for various economic, diplomatic, and other incentives. The Talks, which have yet to resume, do not address the DPRK missile issue directly, but any enduring solution to the DPRK proliferation problem will require stringent constraints on the North’s missile and nuclear activities.

Yet, North Korea presently rejects ROK and U.S. demands that it even eliminate its nuclear weapons as required by the 2005 Six-party agreement. “It is illogical for the U.S. to urge the D.P.R.K. to honor its obligation while it is not complying with what it committed to do in the [Sept. 19, 2005] joint statement,” a DPRK official told the DPRK Korean Central News Agency in October 2012. “The statement specifies the U.S. political, military and economic commitments to fundamentally end its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K. as a chief culprit of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula.”

Although many analysts originally viewed the North’s hardline tactics as a bargaining ploy to secure more concessions from other countries for eventually ending its program, but North Korean officials now insist that this is not the case.

“If they think we have acquired our nuclear weapons to trade them for some economic benefits, it will be nothing but an utterly absurd miscalculation,” a DPRK Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in March 2013, “As long as the United States does not abandon its hostile policy, we have no intention of talking with it, and we will stick fast to our course under ‘songun’ [the DPRK’s military-first policy].” 

The North also claims that the ceasefire ending the Korean War is no longer valid and has suspended a crisis hotline with the South.

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.

Among activities in which North Korea might engage would be intimidating other countries or engaging 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. North Korea also employs its missiles and related research-and-development efforts to enhance its own strike capabilities, compensate for its weak air force, and earn revenue from foreign buyers.

In addition to threatening to use its missiles and nuclear weapons itself, North Korea presents a horizontal nuclear weapons and ballistic missile proliferation challenge.

The DPRK has a history of selling or exchanging ballistic missiles as well as their components and technologies with other regimes of proliferation concern, especially with Iran, Pakistan, and Syria.  North Korea is well plugged-in to international trafficking networks. The DPRK was one of the three countries, including Libya and Iran, which benefitted from some nuclear-weapons related supplies and information distributed by the Pakistani technician A.Q. Khan.  The sale of missiles and WMD-related items represents one of the major sources of DPRK export revenue.

The fear is that, for the right price, the DPRK would transfer any WMD-related technologies to additional rogue states or terrorists.

And now the Pyongyang has improving long-range ballistic missile and plutonium-based nuclear weapons capabilities that it can try to sell.

Furthermore, many American experts worry that that Tehran is watching and weighing how the U.S. administration is responding to the DPRK’s overt challenge when determining its own nuclear policies. U.S. policy makers want to avoid making such generous concessions to Pyongyang as to encourage Tehran and other countries to seek WMD primarily as a means to pry similar rewards from Washington and other countries.

See also

The North Korean Threat: Diplomatic Ping Pong or Need for a Deterrent Strategy?

The Challenge of Deterrence in the Second Nuclear Age: A Discussion with Paul Bracken

And Chuck Hagel’s First Test: North Korea and the Second Nuclear Age