The Evolution Of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Program: How We Got Here
Undated picture shows North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un at an undisclosed location. It was release by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 3, 2017, the same day the country conducted its sixth nuclear test. (STR/AFP/Getty Images/AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS)
In its quest to become nuclear, North Korea made its boldest move yet: It conducted its sixth – and most powerful – nuclear test on September 3, sending shockwaves throughout the world. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated it generated a 6.3 magnitude earthquake.
The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting the next day and called for more sanctions (particularly aimed at convincing North Korea’s biggest benefactor, China, to cut fuel exports to the country), while South Korea responded with live-fire military exercises.
There is speculation that Kim will test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) later this month, timed to the anniversary of the country’s founding by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
For a country with limited resources (its estimated GDP last year was about $28.5 billion, less than that of the state of Vermont), how has North Korea’s ballistic missile program progressed so far?
How it all began
When relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated in the mid-1970s, North Korea began eyeing a ballistic missile program as a way to ensure its security. It wasn’t until the late ’70s and early ’80s that the country obtained an unknown number of short range Scud missiles from Egypt. These were reverse engineered and became the foundation of North Korea’s ballistic missile program.
Between July and September 1984, North Korea carried out six flight tests of its own versions of these missiles in remote Musudan-ri, located in the country’s northeast corner. Of these tests, experts believe half exploded on or shortly after launch.
The program had a rocky start, but North Korea learned from its failures. As it perfected its own version of the Scud (or as North Korea calls it, the Hwasong-5), it worked to extend its range. The Scud can only hit targets about 186 miles (300 kilometers) away but North Korea modified it to reach as far as 310 miles (500 kilometers).
‘Bigger and better’
But to target U.S. bases in Japan, North Korea needed to do better. It took the basic Scud and made it bigger. The U.S. refers to North Korea’s enlarged version of the Scud as the “Nodong,” named after the village of No Dong where U.S. analysts first spotted the missile.
North Korea appears to have developed these early missiles in cooperation with Iran and possibly Pakistan. Both countries employ their own versions of the Nodong, and likely provided North Korea with technical experts, money, materials or some combination of the above in exchange for North Korea’s missiles. Diffusing costs between the three would significantly increase the chances of success and ease the financial burden on North Korea.
Deals have been made before
North Korea’s missile development has not always been a straight drive towards an ICBM. In fact, the country has been willing to halt the program in exchange for a few carrots in the past.
In 1998, North Korea launched a missile the U.S. refers to as the Taepodong-1. Much like the recent test on August 28, the missile flew over Japan and traveled several thousand miles before blowing up spectacularly and crashing into the Pacific Ocean. While it was considered a failure, the test still rattled the international community.
It jump-started U.S. missile defense systems such as the ground-based midcourse defense system, and led to a U.S.-North Korea agreement that halted further missile tests in exchange for the relaxation of sanctions. This deal — which policy makers would jump for now — lasted until 2006 it collapsed after talks between the two countries stalled. North Korea resumed missile testing with a seven-missile volley.
The push by Kim Jong-un
Despite the revival, it wasn’t until Kim Jong-un assumed power at the end of 2011 that North Korea’s missile program really took flight.
Kim Jong-un has carried out 84 missile tests (as of September 1, 2017), more than twice the number of his father and grandfather combined. And in the past two years, we’ve seen not only more tests, but brand-new innovations in North Korea’s missiles.
In 2015, North Korea began flight tests of its submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-1. By August 2016, North Korea successfully tested the system at sea.
While the missile itself can only travel about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) and so far appears only workable on a single North Korean sub, this system greatly complicates U.S. missile defense plans. With an SLBM, North Korea can launch missiles from unexpected directions with very short warning times. U.S. ballistic missile defense systems might only have a minute to intercept the missile or might miss its launch altogether.
North Korea’s SLBM added another complicating factor: solid fuel. Solid-fuel missiles, in contrast to their liquid-fueled counterparts like the Scud and Nodong, are built with the fuel cast into them. This drastically reduces prep time, making them a lot harder to spot prior to launch.
These advantages were not lost on North Korea. Following the successful August 2016 SLBM test, North Korea took that missile and mounted it on a tracked vehicle and created a land-based version of it, the Pukguksong-2.
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The Musudan was first revealed in a 2010 military parade and bore a striking resemblance to a Soviet SLBM, the R-27. North Korea reportedly deployed it before it was ever flight-tested. When it was finally flight tested in 2016, the missile failed five times before its first (and to date only) successful launch.
Images released following the test showed that the Musudan’s engine featured a complex design, probably meant to demonstrate North Korea’s advancing technical capabilities. However, we have yet to see another successful Musudan test and the shift to the significantly different Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 designs, suggests that the country has halted work on this engine design or abandoned it altogether.
IRBMs and ICBMs
The biggest innovation we’ve seen in North Korea’s missile program came this year with the successful testing of North Korea’s new intermediate-range ballistic missiles — the Hwasong-12 — and its intercontinental ballistic missiles — the Hwasong-14.
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The first three tests of the Hwasong-12 test were unsuccessful, however the fourth on May 14, was. Following the test, North Korea released detailed images of its new missile. Analysis revealed it used an engine configuration first tested in March 2017 which propelled it to an altitude of 1,304 miles (2,100 kilometers), significantly outperforming all previous ballistic missile tests. Experts speculated that with the addition of a second stage, North Korea could modify the Hwasong-12 to build an ICBM.
Shortly after the first successful Hwasong-12 test, the North Koreans revealed that very missile, the Hwasong-14. On July 4, North Korea successfully tested it.
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To date, the missile has been tested twice, with its second test reaching an altitude of around 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers), almost 994 miles (1,600 kilometers) higher that the single stage Hwasong-12. While range estimates vary, they go from the entire West Coast to Chicago.
We’ve seen huge advancements in North Korea’s missile program over the past 18 months. But even with the successful test of an ICBM, things could still get worse.
In order to ensure its missiles can reliably hit the U.S., North Korea will have to conduct overflights of Japan. The August 28 test that did just that could soon become the new normal.
North Korea’s missiles also still lack the capability to hit Washington, but bringing the U.S. capital within range is doubtless a major strategic goal for Kim. We still don’t know how accurate North Korea’s missiles are, however after claiming to have successfully developed a hydrogen bomb, this isn’t as important. Armed with a weapon that can flatten any civilian structure at least within two miles, North Korea doesn’t need to worry about accuracy as much to destroy an American city.
North Korea’s solid-fuel program will probably also expand significantly. The country has ordered the mass production of its land based solid-fuel missile and is believed to have units deployed and equipped with nuclear warheads. Developing longer ranged versions of these missiles and increasing their reliability is also certainly a goal.
A solid-fueled North Korean ICBM is probably a ways off given that North Korea is still becoming acquainted with the technology. However, given the willingness of North Korea’s leadership to pour everything it has into its missile program, it likely won’t be long before North Korea can reliably strike anywhere in the U.S. with nuclear weapons.