Yesterday, the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C. published a compelling report entitled “The Future of North Korean Nuclear Delivery Systems,” arguing that North Korea’s missiles have sufficient reliability and range to hit principle targets in Japan and South Korea. The authors of the report, however, are less certain that Pyongyang’s ICBM’s will be capable of hitting the continental United States, given various technical hurdles that would need to be overcome first.
“North Korea’s current delivery systems consist of about 1,000 ballistic missiles and a small number of light bombers able to reach most targets in South Korea and Japan,” the authors write. This includes a large stockpile of Scud ballistic missiles, the Nodong medium-range ballistic missile, the KN-02 Toksa short-range ballistic missile (based on the old Soviet SS-21 model) and approximately 60 Il-28 light bombers. The range of the various missiles are estimated at 300-1,500 km.
“Pyongyang may also be able to field a limited number of long-range Taepodong missiles—a militarized version of the Unha space launch vehicle (SLV)—as an ‘emergency operational capability,’ able to reach targets in the United States,” according to the report. However, such a weapon would “suffer from significant problems” the authors conclude.
Yesterday, Admiral William Gortney, the head of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command had a slightly different assessment on North Korean ICBM’s: “Our assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 [ballistic missile] and shoot it at the homeland. We assess that it’s operational today, and so we practice to go against it.”
On the KN-08 the report states:
Accuracy would likely be barely adequate to target large cities, mobility would be limited to paved roads, and the system will require 1-2 hours for pre-launch fueling. Some analysts believe the KN-08 is part of North Korea’s strategic deception effort since it has not been flight tested but there are reports of ground testing of the missile’s first-stage engines. The KN-08 may achieve an “emergency operational status” by 2020 before or with very limited flight testing.
The paper presents three scenarios for the development and deployment of North Korean delivery systems by 2020:
Minimal Modernization: North Korea’s development of new delivery systems slows, resulting in a force that remains essentially the same as it is today.
Steady Modernization: North Korea continues its current development and deployment path, resulting in a greater regional threat than in the first scenario and the emergence of a more credible intercontinental threat.
Maximum Modernization: North Korea accelerates the development and deployment of new systems, resulting in a more rapidly emerging regional and intercontinental threat.
Interestingly, the report emphasizes that foreign assistance (or lack thereof) will be critical in determining Pyongyang’s progress in developing new delivery systems over the next five years:
Since the North is not self-sufficient in missile production, the level of foreign assistance could be a critical factor determining how much progress Pyongyang is able to make in technologies such as high performance liquid-fuel engines, solid-fuel rocket motors, high-speed heat shields and reentry vehicles, guidance electronics, sophisticated machine tools and high-strength, lightweight materials.
It also notes that the challenges North Korea will face in developing new delivery systems will be greater than those encountered in its nuclear program.