On January 5, 2016, the U.S. Department of Defense released its legally required report to the U.S. congress on military developments in North Korea. The report was released one day before North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb as part of its fourth-ever nuclear weapons test and just over a month before North Korea launched its fourth satellite launch vehicles. The report offers insight into the Pentagon’s assessments of North Korea’s military abilities, including the expected progress of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program.
According to the report, North Korea’s KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile, also known as the Nodong-C, would be capable of reaching “much of the continental United States.” The report caveats that this would depend on the KN-08 being successfully designed and developed first. According to the Pentagon’s assessment, for North Korea to reach this point, it would have to undertake multiple flight tests to hone its technology. It also noted that North Korea has made advancements on its KN-08s recently, citing “noticeably different” KN-08s being carried by transporter erector launchers (TEL) during the country’s October 2015 military parade.
Unsurprisingly, the Pentagon continues to assess North Korea’s satellite launches as an attempt to “provide a veneer of legitimacy” to its ballistic missile development program. Several independent expert assessments concur in this regard. The country’s launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4 earth observation satellite earlier this month fits into this pattern. The Pentagon offers an admittedly hazy estimate of the number of ballistic missile systems currently in Pyongyang’s arsenal and their varying ranges. It estimates that North Korea possess “fewer than 100” of its Toksa, SCUD-B, SCUD-C, and SCUD-ER systems, “fewer than 50” Nodong missiles, each with a range of around 800 miles, and “fewer than 50” IRBMs with a range of over 2000 miles each.
Owing to its timing, the report does not discuss North Korea’s alleged success at developing a hydrogen bomb (experts widely suggest the device tested in early January was a boosted fission device). Additionally, the report offers no assessment of whether North Korea has managed to successfully miniaturize a nuclear device for mating with one of its existing intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile systems. The Pentagon does note that North Korea’s satellite launch vehicle tests remain limited in helping it weaponize a reliable and accurate long-range missile as long as it doesn’t test a reentry vehicle capable of surviving atmospheric reentry. North Korea’s launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite earlier this month simply placed the satellite in orbit and did not involve reentry.
What remains striking about these publicly available Pentagon reports is just how much uncertain persists about the specifics of North Korea’s critical weapons programs. When it comes to the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, there’s a lot the United States simply doesn’t know.