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Authored by Dr. Daniel A. Pinkston. | February 2008
North Korean ballistic missiles are a direct threat to Northeast Asian security, and North Korean missile proliferation poses a threat to other regions, particularly the Middle East and South Asia. North Korea is an isolated and authoritarian one-party state; the political system is based upon an extraordinary personality cult that idolizes current leader, Kim Jong Il (Kim Chong-il), and his deceased father, Kim Il Sung (Kim Il-song). Several factors have contributed to Pyongyang's chronic insecurity including national division, the Korean War, the international politics of the Cold War, and doubts about the commitments of its alliance partners.
After failing to unify Korea by force in the early 1950s, Pyongyang tried to destabilize South Korea and trigger a revolution that would bring unification on North Korean terms. The strategy also called for a superior conventional military that could defeat South Korea before the United States could intervene. The 1960s in particular were marked by serious North Korean provocations, but Kim Il Sung was unable to "complete the revolution in the South" as stipulated under the Korean Workers' Party Bylaws.
North Korea's dissatisfaction with Chinese and Soviet support led Pyongyang to question the credibility of its alliance partners, and it began to seek an independent munitions industry in the mid-1960s. At this time, North Korea began to acquire short-range rockets, surface-to-air missiles, and coastal-defense antiship missiles from the Soviet Union and China. Institutions were also established to develop the human resources to sustain a missile development program. In the 1970s, Pyongyang sought technology transfers and international cooperation to obtain a missile production capability. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, North Korea was developing the Hwasong-5, a reverse-engineered version of the Soviet Scud-B (R-17). There is disagreement over the timing and source of the Scud-B samples North Korea acquired, but the general consensus is that Egypt provided a few samples in the late 1970s. The first North Korean versions were flight tested in 1984 and deployed in the mid-1980s.
After the Hwasong-5 began serial production in 1987, North Korean missile development accelerated at a remarkable pace. During a 5-year period (1987-92), North Korea began developing the Hwasong-6 (a North Korean version of the Soviet Scud-C), the "Nodong," the Paektusan-1 (commonly known as the Taepodong-1), the Paektusan-2 (commonly known as the Taepodong-2), and the "Musudan" (a North Korean road-mobile version of the Soviet R-27/SS-N-6 "Serb" submarine-launched ballistic missile).
North Korea has successfully flight tested the Hwasong-5/6 and the Nodong, but the single flight test of the Paektusan-1 was only partially successful since the third stage failed, apparently exploding before it could place a small satellite into low earth orbit. The Paektusan-2 failed after about 40-42 seconds of powered flight during its single flight test. This test, on July 5, 2006, was conducted during the country's largest ballistic missile exercise to date.
North Korea has also unveiled a new short-range solid-fuel missile called the KN-02, which is a reverse-engineered version of the Soviet SS-21 Tochka (Scarab). This missile only has a range of about 120km, but it is highly accurate and road mobile. Its solid fuel and mobility increase its survivability significantly, and it could pose a serious threat to South Korea and to U.S. Forces Korea. North Korea has a significant infrastructure and institutional arrangement to sustain its missile program. The country is nearly self-sufficient in ballistic missile production, but still relies upon some advanced foreign technologies and components, particularly for guidance systems. Pyongyang has established foreign entities and front companies to acquire inputs, but international export controls and denial strategies have made it increasingly difficult to procure dual-use items and technologies.
North Korea has deployed about 800 road-mobile ballistic missiles, mostly in underground facilities. About 600 of these missiles are Scud variants capable of striking targets in South Korea, and some could be extended-range versions capable of striking Japanese territory. Approximately 200 road-mobile Nodongs could strike Tokyo. The so-called Musudan has not been flight tested, and it is uncertain whether it has been deployed, but the Musudan could potentially strike Guam.
North Korea exploded a small nuclear device on October 9, 2006, but North Korean engineers probably have not been able to miniaturize a nuclear bomb to fit on top of a missile and survive reentry. This will probably require more research, development, and testing, but foreign assistance could accelerate this timeline and cannot be ruled out. North Korean missiles are capable of delivering conventional high explosive and chemical warheads, and possibly biological weapons.
The National Defense Commission, chaired by Kim Jong Il, is the ultimate command authority for the North Korean missile arsenal; however, little is known about North Korean military doctrine. North Korean media report that the regime needs a "deterrent force" to cope with the "hostile policy" of the United States, but not much is known about operations or the possible delegation of launch authority, and under what conditions, during wartime.
During the late 1990s, the United States and North Korea held several rounds of talks aimed at ending the North Korean ballistic missile program, but the talks were suspended with the change in U.S. administrations in 2001. The United States and North Korea are now engaged in Six-Party Talks that include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The talks are also committed to discussing the establishment of a regional multilateral security arrangement, which could eventually address the North Korean ballistic missile program. However, this effort will take considerable time and will have to deal with a number of complex security issues before Pyongyang will abandon its ballistic missiles.