Features | Security | East Asia

Tackling North Korea’s Missile Quest

There’s much we don’t know about North Korea’s missile program. But it’s abundantly clear a new defense strategy is called for.

By Michael Raska for

While North Korea’s latest launch of the Unha-3 (Taepodong 2) space launch vehicle intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) failed in its third attempt to place a satellite into orbit, the test doesn’t end Pyongyang's ongoing efforts to develop its catalogue of short, medium, and long-range ballistic missile systems.

On April 15, Pyongyang unveiled what appeared to be a new road-mobile long-range ballistic missile system, code-named KN-08, which hints that North Korea aims to develop a mobile ICBM that can be launched directly, without the lengthy preparation time required by the Taepodong 2.  The new system also signals ambitious objectives, more missile tests, and ultimately, it raises questions about the covert external, technical and financial assistance that underlines North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.

During the April 15 military parade in Pyongyang, marking the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un declared that superiority in military technology was “was no longer monopolized by imperialists.” Following his first public speech, North Korea displayed one of its largest military parades, featuring at least six new road-mobile long-range missiles that were transported on top of a large 16-wheel TEL vehicle based on Chinese design.

The new missile’s appearance has stirred significant debate among arms control experts, intelligence and defense analysts on the viability, character, capability, and future deployment of North Korea’s new missile program.

On the one hand, there are skeptical suggestions that the new missiles, painted in a three-tone camouflage with serial numbers and stage-separation bands in clear white paint, are nothing but plywood mockups. In particular, selected design features of the new missile seem odd and raise considerable suspicions. Moreover, the uncertainty of its operational readiness is marked by the absence of any flight tests.

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Others, however, see North Korea’s new missile development as a significant shift toward an actual ICBM missile force.

Indeed, there have been a series of less-noticed public statements by high-ranking U.S. officials that point toward North Korea’s emerging ICBM development trajectory. For example, during the 10th IISS Asia Security Summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue, held in June 2011 in Singapore, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “with the continued development of long-range missiles and potentially a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and their continued development of nuclear weapons, North Korea is in the process of becoming a direct threat to the United States.”

More recently, on March 7, 2012, Adm. Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified before the House Armed Service Committee, noting that “there is a development within North Korea of a road-mobile ICBM system that we’ve observed…We have not observed it being tested yet, to my knowledge. We are watching the development very closely.”

For more than three decades, North Korea has been developing and deploying a variety of ballistic missile technologies as force multipliers vis-à-vis qualitatively more advanced U.S.-South Korea conventional military capabilities.

Its programs date back to the early-1980s, when North Korea reverse-engineered Soviet-made 300 kilometer-range Scud B short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) acquired from Egypt. Subsequently, it used the Scud technology and progressively extended the range and payload capabilities of its follow-on systems, including Scud B (Hwasong 5), Scud C (Hwasong 6), No Dong medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), Taepodong 1 (TD-1) and TD-2 long-range systems. The TD-1, for example, combined technologies of the Nodong’s first stage and Scud-variant as the second stage.

From the early 1990s onwards, North Korea has successfully exported or transferred its missile technologies to selected countries in the Middle East and South Asia. With the saturation of the Scud market in the 2000s, however, North Korea has shifted its missile development priorities to completely new systems. These include solid-propellant SRBM, code-named KN-02 Tochka – a derivative of the Soviet SS-21 missile; the liquid-propelled intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), code-named Musudan – a derivative of the SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM); and the Taepodong 2 ICBM. The latest exposure of the KN-08 is another addition to the catalogue of North Korea’s ballistic missiles in development.

In this context, North Korea has currently three potential pathways to develop an operational ICBM: 1) It can continue to enhance the Taepodong 2 variant, disguising it as a space launch vehicle; 2) It can use the experience to modify technologies of the Musudan IRBM and extend the range and payload capabilities in a similar way it has used the No Dong to develop the Taepodong; and 3) It can introduce and test a new larger type of missile with more advanced design, engines, and accurate guidance systems based on external covert operational, technical, and financial assistance.  In doing so, it can use the newly constructed space launch facility located at Tongchang-ri.

Since the mid-1990s, strategic realities on the Korean Peninsula have become more “fluid” and multi-faceted with the emergence of “hybrid” security threats that combine conventional, asymmetrical, low-intensity, and non-linear threat dimensions. These include two extreme threats on a threat scale – on one end is North Korea’s continuously advancing ballistic missile program coupled with its WMD

(nuclear, chemical, and biological) development.  At the other end of the threat spectrum, however, is North Korea’s specter of a failed state – its progressively worsening economic situation, gradual strategic decay accompanied by internal structural erosion  and prolonged international diplomatic isolation, which have broadened the risks of potential instability and volatility, for example, in scenarios ranging “from implosion to explosion.”

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In the increasingly “hybrid conflict” spectrum, South Korea’s traditional security template based on three mutually-reinforcing strategic pillars: defensive deterrence; the U.S-South Korea alliance; and forward active defense may no longer be relevant.  This means that U.S-South Korean defense planners must search for a new defense strategy with relevant operational concepts that would allow greater flexibility, adaptability, and autonomy under conditions of strategic uncertainty. At the same time, the international community must work toward sharpening proliferation restrictions of missile technologies and components in order to curtail North Korea’s WMD programs and ambitions.

Michael Raska is Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, based at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.