North Korea's Ballistic Missile Program

Author: Daniel Wertz

Originally Published April 2013
 

Last Updated April 2024
Author: Dr. Jeffrey Lewis

(Previous Editions: December 2017August 2015, April 2013)

 

Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 IRBM

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches as a Hwasong-12 IRBM is launched from Sunan Airport in Pyongyang. Photo via KCNA.

Introduction

North Korea has historically placed a significant emphasis on the development of missile systems, dating to the early 1960s. This emphasis has included both the investment of significant resources in a domestic production capability as well as the sale of both missiles and production technologies to fund the further development of these capabilities.

In general, North Korea looked to the Soviet Union, and later Russia, as a primary source of design inspiration – although China has also been an important source of technology and tools.

North Korea has followed a predictable pattern of importing Russian technology, reverse engineering it, and then attempting to stretch that technology to its limits. Since the early 1980s, North Korea has reverse engineered three different Soviet liquid propellant rocket engines – the 9D21, 4D10 and RD250 – and attempted to use each to produce a viable ICBM. While the first two attempts failed to produce a viable ICBM, the third attempt – the development of a North Korean variant of the RD250 hailed as the “March 18 Revolution” – resulted in North Korea’s first operational family of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

North Korea is now shifting from the development of liquid-propellant rocket engines to missiles that use solid motors and cruise missiles. This shift is apparent in the development of both large numbers of short- and medium-range “tactical” nuclear weapons, as well as the development of the Hwasong-18 solid propellant ICBM and strategic-range cruise missiles.

 

Early Efforts

North Korean efforts to acquire advanced missile capabilities were initially triggered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet Union initially provided North Korea with limited assistance in the form of the S-75 Dvina (NATO reporting name SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missiles before suspending military assistance in 1963-1964. After 1965, the Soviet Union had also provided North Korea with the 2K6 Luna missile launchers armed with 3R10 missiles (NATO reporting name FROG-5), P-15 Termit (NATO reporting name SS-N-2 Styx) surface-to-ship missiles, and S-2 Sopka (NATO reporting name Samlet) air-to-ship missiles1.

The Soviet Union did not, however, assist North Korea to produce these weapons. The DPRK created domestic production capabilities for these systems in the 1970s, probably with Chinese assistance.2. North Korea established a factory for the production of Styx anti-ship missiles at Sanum-dong outside Pyongyang, a factory for the production and assembly of the SA-2 Guideline near Kangson, and a factory for the production of FROG-5 missiles at the January 18 Machine Plant3

During this same period, South Korea began developing its own long-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile based on the US Nike-Hercules surface-to-air missile. In 1978, South Korea agreed to missile guidelines that limited the development of its ballistic missiles to 180 km in exchange for US technical assistance.

In the late 1970s, the DPRK attempted to acquire a 600-kilometer range liquid propellant surface-to-surface ballistic missile from China known as the DF-614. This cooperation ended after two years when its primary backer on the Chinese Central Military Commission was ousted from his position5.
 

Scud-based systems/9D21 Rocket Engine

In a liquid propellant rocket engine, a pump forces fuel and oxidizer into a combustion chamber, where they ignite to produce the thrust that powers the missile. The power of the engine depends on how energetic the propellants are, the ability of the pump to deliver them, and the ability of the engine to withstand the heat and pressure of combustion.

The modern DPRK missile force dates to 1982 or 1983 when “North Korea acquired two Soviet-produced Egyptian Scud B SRBMs and their associated TELs in order to reverse-engineer the system”6. The Scud was an early Soviet short-range ballistic missile, which Moscow had supplied to Egypt in advance of the 1973 war with Israel. The arrangement was part of a broader program under which the DPRK assisted Egypt in the production and maintenance of its Soviet-supplied Scud and SA-2 missile systems following the end of Soviet arms assistance to Cairo.

North Korea reverse engineered the 300 km-range Scud B SRBM and produced a 600 km-range SRBM variant known as the Scud C7. North Korea has subsequently produced multiple variants of the Scud, including the 1000 km-range Extended Range Scud. North Korea supplied hundreds of Scud missiles to Iran, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. North Korea also assisted Egypt, Iran and Syria in the domestic manufacture of Scud missiles8 Development and production of liquid-propellant missiles appears to be largely done at the Thaesong Machine Factory and the Sanumdong Research Complex, both near Pyongyang.

North Korea developed a larger variant of the Scud engine by increasing the size of the 9D21 engine. North Korea exported the 1200 km-range Nodong MRBM to Pakistan, where it is known as the Ghauri, and Iran where it is known as the Shahab-39. Iran, with the assistance of Russian and Chinese entities, made extensive changes to the Nodong, which is a pattern that has been repeated with later missiles transferred from or co-developed with North Korea.

North Korea also used the basic Nodong engine in a pair of space-launch vehicles. In 1999, North Korea launched the Paektusan-1 (Taepodong-1), which used a Nodong engine in the first stage. In 2006, North Korea launched the Taepodong-2, which used a cluster of Nodong engines for the first stage. North Korea has launched this system under different names, including Unha-2 (2009), Unha-3 (April and again in December 2012) and Kwangmyongsong (2016). Debris recovered from rocket launches indicates that the Taepodong-2 uses many imported components10.

The United States believes that, as a three-stage ICBM, the Taepodong-2 would have a range of 15,000 km11. The Taepodong-2 would have limited utility as an ICBM because the poor performance of its propellants results in a missile that is much too large to be mobile and because the corrosive nature the RFNA oxidizer means the missile cannot be kept fueled for long periods of time.
 

Missile Negotiations 

By the 1990s, the sale of North Korean missiles, particularly in the Middle East, had created a major political problem in Israel and the United States. Israel initially attempted to negotiate directly with North Korea. This effort was conducted by the Mossad and drew heavy criticism from both Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who discovered the backchannel when delegations from the Foreign Ministry and Mossad were on the same flight from Pyongyang, and the United States, which wanted to address the missile proliferation concerns of Japan and South Korea12

The US ultimately took over negotiations, conducting five rounds of missile talks with North Korea between 1996 and 2000. On the US side, the desire to reach an agreement increased following North Korea’s 1998 flight test of the Taepodong-1. Following that test, as well as allegations that North Korea was violating the Agreed Framework, former Secretary of Defense William Perry conducted a policy review that in October 1999 recommended strengthening the Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium production program, with additional measures including an agreement to address North Korea’s development and sale of ballistic missiles.

In a July 2000 meeting with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Il signaled his willingness to reach such an agreement with the United States. Kim also committed to a moratorium on ballistic missile launches during the negotiations, a moratorium that would last until July 2006.

There remains disagreement about how close the United States and North Korea were to a missile deal, in part because there were several unresolved issues after the final round of working-level negotiations in November 2000, including: the type of missiles covered by the freeze, the disposition of existing missiles, verification and monitoring procedures, and the type and size of the compensation package13. The primary disagreement on scope related to whether the agreement would cover all MTCR Category 1 missile systems including Scud missiles, as the US wanted, or whether it would only cover the Nodong and Taepodong missiles under development.

To resolve some of these outstanding issues, the United States and North Korea exchanged high-level visits. In October, Marshal Jo Myong Rok became the highest ranking North Korean official to visit the United States. Two weeks later, Madeleine Albright became the first US Secretary of State to visit North Korea. North Korea continued to hold out for a Presidential visit to conclude negotiations, but President Clinton decided against traveling to North Korea in the final days of his presidency, focusing instead on peace efforts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East.

We do not know what additional concessions, if any, Kim Jong Il would have offered Clinton during an in-person meeting, nor do we know how Clinton might have reacted. The natural trade would have been for the parties to agree to the US position on the immediate freeze covering all MTCR-class Scud variants while deferring questions about verification and the elimination of existing missiles to the future, as North Korea wished. Those who believe that the Clinton Administration would have accepted terms broadly along these lines tend to see the parties as having been close to an agreement, while those who believe Clinton would have rejected such terms tend to see the parties as having been far apart.

After the Bush Administration took office, negotiations were placed on hold while the new administration conducted a policy review. Before the results of that policy review could be presented to North Korea, the US acquired intelligence that North Korea had begun a production-scale program to enrich uranium. That intelligence, as well as how the Bush Administration perceived North Korea’s reaction to it, ultimately led to the collapse of the Agreed Framework, the abandonment of missile talks and the resumption of missile testing in 2006.
 

SS-N-6/4D10 Rocket Engine

The Scud missile uses a relatively simple propellant combination – kerosene and red fuming nitric acid – that limited its utility for use in intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. At some point, North Korea sought to develop liquid propellant rocket engines using superior propellants, like UDMH and NTO, which offer improved performance and storability. North Korea’s first engine using UDMH/NTO was based on the Soviet 4D10, which was used in a Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile known as the SS-N-6.

North Korea probably acquired information on the Soviet SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile, including its 4D10 liquid propellant rocket engine, in the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In October 1992, Russian authorities at Sheremetyevo Airport stopped a number of Russian technical personnel, including some from the Makeyev rocket design bureau (which designed the 4D10), from boarding a flight to North Korea14

In September 2003, press reports indicated that satellite images had captured five missile launchers and ten SS-N-6-like missiles at the Mirim airdrome outside Pyongyang15. In early 2004, these press stories prompted the then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency to testify to Congress that North Korea was about to field a new intermediate-range ballistic missile based on the SS-N-616.

North Korea appears to have fielded this missile without having flight tested it, which is extremely unusual. North Korea would not test the missile, which the US called the Musudan and North Korea called the Hwasong-10, until in 2016. Only one is believed to have been successful.

The 4D10 is an unusual engine because to reduce the length of the missile so that it would fit inside Soviet submarines, the designers submerged the engine inside the rocket’s fuel tank. This unusual design likely contributed to the poor flight-test record of the Musudan.

In 2005, the German newspaper Bild reported that North Korea sold 18 of the missiles to Iran. Iran later revealed the development of its own variant of the missile, which it calls the Khorramshahr, testing four variants since 201717.

Just as North Korea attempted to develop an ICBM using a cluster of Scud engines, North Korea also developed a pair of ICBMs with a cluster of two 4D10 engines – the KN-08 and KN-13. Although these missiles were displayed at parades and internal propaganda shows Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un touring production facilities for these missiles, they were probably never flight tested.

The unusual submerged-engine probably severely hampered North Korean efforts to cluster the 4D10 in the KN-08 and -13. North Korea conducted a ground-test of a clustered pair of SS-N-6 engines in April 2016. North Korea appears to have shifted to a much better technology for the development of ICBMs by this time.

 

"March 18 Revolution Engine" 

In July 2011, two North Koreans –Ri Tae-gil and Ryu Song-chol – were arrested in Ukraine after approaching an employee of the then-Yuzhnoye design bureau for seeking classified information about rocket engines. Separately, Ukraine also expelled two North Korean diplomats accredited in Moscow who also attempted to acquire classified information relating to missile development18

By 2015, there were public reports that North Korea had developed a variant of Russia’s RD-250 rocket engine, manufactured by Yuzhnoye, and was co-developing this engine with Iran19. In 2016, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned four Iranian nationals, including “Iranian missile technicians from SHIG [who] traveled to North Korea to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government”20

North Korea conducted static engine tests of an RD250 variant in September 2016 and again on March 18, 2017. Michael Elleman identified the engine as the Yuzhnoye RD250, which has a distinctive design in which an engine comprises a pair of thrust chambers with a single, shared turbopump physically between them21. For the September 2016 test, North Korea pointedly referred to the engine as an “80 ton booster” in a probable reference to Treasury’s action, although it described the engine as being for a space launch vehicle. Following the March 18 test, Kim Jong Un described the moment as the “March 18 Revolution”, representing an advance of “historic significance”22.

Unlike the Scud’s 9D21 and the SS-N-6’s 4D10 engines, North Korea was able to use the RD250 to create a family of viable intermediate- and intercontinental range ballistic missiles. These include the one-stage Hwasong-12 IRBM, the two-stage Hwasong-14 ICBM, the two-stage Hwasong-15 ICBM (all tested in 2017) and the two-stage Hwasong-17 (tested in 2023) which is probably armed with multiple warheads.

The RD250 is also used in the booster for both of North Korea’s initial so-called hypersonic weapons. North Korea has shown two different two gliding warhead designs – a conical “maneuvering reentry vehicle” (MaRV) with small control surfaces and a flying “wing” similar in shape to China’s DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). North Korea probably calls these missiles the Hwasong-12A and B.

North Korea’s Chollima-1 space launcher, which experienced two launch failures in 2023 followed by a successful launch in November of the same year, also appears to use a cluster of RD250 engines in its first stage.

We know very little about the upper stage engines of these missiles. North Korea has released a single image from a test of an upper stage engine for the Hwasong-14. This engine appeared to use a pair of vernier thrusters from the 4D10 engine similar to an upper stage developed for Iran’s Safir SLV.

Visual examination of the upper stage of the Hwasong-17 shows “roll control” thrusters that imply the engine uses a single nozzle rather than a pair of vernier thrusters. (A single nozzle cannot provide roll control, while a pair of thrusters can.) It is likely that North Korea has developed an improved upper stage engine that has not yet been revealed.

In addition to improved engine performance, the UDMH/NTO propellant combination can be stored in the missile for longer periods of time. This allows North Korea to fuel missiles months or even years prior to launch. Since 2022, North Korea has emphasized that it uses “ampulization” which means the missiles can be maintained at high levels of alert for significant periods of time.
 

The Role of Foreign Assistance

Since the 1990s, there has been vigorous debate about the degree to which North Korea is capable of producing ballistic missiles. In 1999, the United States intelligence community judged that “despite North Korea's declining economic situation in recent years, the DPRK has continued to invest scarce resources in maintaining and developing its missile programs. Indeed, since the 1980s, North Korea's aggressive missile development program has progressed from producing and exporting a knock-off of the original Soviet 1950s SCUD short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) to parlaying SCUD technology into medium- and longer-range missiles of North Korean design.”

On the other side of the debate, a German aerospace engineer named Robert Schmucker argued that “North Korea received extensive foreign support, making real reverse engineering and any indigenous development activities unnecessary. The applied technologies clearly indicate that nearly everything comes from Russia! … North Korea did not perform any major independent work in the missile area”23.

This debate continues to the present day. After North Korea tested the first missiles using the March 18 Revolution engine, Michael Elleman argued that “There is no evidence to suggest that North Korea successfully designed and developed the LPE indigenously. … It is, therefore, far more likely that the Hwasong-12 and -14 are powered by an LPE imported from an established missile power”24. By contrast, a US official stated that “We have intelligence to suggest that North Korea is not reliant on imports of engines. Instead, we judge they have the ability to produce the engines themselves”25.

The primary arguments in support of substantial foreign assistance are that North Korea’s missiles are extremely similar in design to Russian and Soviet missiles and that North Korea has conducted an extremely limited number of flight tests. The primary arguments in support of domestic production is that while North Korea’s missile systems are clearly copies of Soviet and Russian designs, they often differ in important ways; that the limited number of flight tests can be explained by North Korea’s willingness to deploy less reliable systems (such as the Musudan) based on static engine tests and computer simulations; and that North Korea has invested significant resources in acquiring foreign CNC machine tools and manufacturing those tools itself.

 

Warheads and Reentry Vehicles 

For some years, there was a question about whether North Korea could manufacture a so-called “compact” fission warhead small enough to arm a ballistic missile. The US intelligence community has long maintained that while a state could develop such a warhead without prior explosive testing, the reliability of an untested compact weapon would be in doubt26. Prior to North Korea’s first nuclear test, a North Korean defector claimed that North Korea had indeed developed an untested, compact 1000 kg warhead, but that North Korean scientists were uncertain about its reliability27. North Korea later released an undated image that appears to show Kim Jong Il posing with such a device. The low yield of North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 (less than a kiloton) seems to confirm that North Korea manufactured a compact device with poor reliability.

North Korea probably resolved the problems of that first device during additional nuclear explosive tests. In May 2009, North Korea conducted a nuclear test that “helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems” with increasing the warhead’s yield28. Additional tests followed in February 2013 and January 2016. In 2016, Kim Jong Un posed with what North Korea described as a “standardized” nuclear warhead design for its ballistic missiles that appeared to be about 60 cm in diameter. North Korea claims it validated the design of the standardized warhead in its fifth nuclear test in September 2016. Based on seismic data, the yield of that warhead is more than 10 kilotons, about the same power as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In 2017, Kim Jong Un posed with a model of a staged thermonuclear device that was also small enough to arm one of North Korea’s ICBMs. North Korea claims to have tested this device in its sixth nuclear test in September 2017. The yield, again based on seismic data, was on the order of a few hundred kilotons, comparable to modern US and Russian thermonuclear weapons29. In 2023, Kim Jong Un inspected what appeared to be a number of smaller fission warheads for North Korea’s so-called tactical nuclear weapons systems like the 600 mm MLRS, Hwasong-11, and Hwasal cruise missile.

China’s experience in the 1960s demonstrates that six nuclear tests are sufficient to develop both a boosted compact fission device and a staged thermonuclear weapon, as North Korea claims to have done. Given advances in modern computing and the commercial availability of formerly exotic technologies like pulse neutron tubes and fiber optic cable for test diagnostics, North Korea in the 2000s would have faced many fewer technical barriers to reducing the size of its nuclear weapons than China did in the 1960s.

Some experts have expressed doubts that the DPRK can manufacture a reentry vehicle that would survive the harsh environment of atmospheric reentry. China struggled with the development of a reliable reentry vehicle for its DF-5 ICBM in the 1970s, although it was able to solve the problem within a few years using the materials science of the time. No country that has developed an ICBM has been unable to also develop a viable reentry vehicle.

Unlike China in the 1970s, North Korea can take advantage of modern advances in materials science such as carbon-composite materials. In 2016, North Korea released images showing a static test of an ablative carbon-composite tip for a reentry vehicle, in which a rocket engine simulated the heat of a reentry environment. Kim Jong Un inspected the nose tip following the test. The charred tip was later displayed again during Kim’s visit to the Chemical Materials Institute in Hamhung, which produces carbon composite components for North Korea’s missile program.

In 2017, a US expert concluded from footage captured by Japanese public broadcaster NHK that the reentry vehicle used in the July 2017 test had disintegrated during reentry30. Other experts, however, believe the tumbling object was probably the spent upper stage or a dummy warhead31. (Based on the rate it fell, the object had a very low beta, meaning it was probably too light and not aerodynamic enough to be a reentry vehicle.) North Korea has stated this as well.

North Korea’s ICBM tests have all been highly lofted, which produces a reentry environment that is unrepresentative in an ambiguous way – the maximum heat experienced is lower for a lofted test, but the reentry vehicle must endure the high heat load for a longer period of time. Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, reported that the United States intelligence community believed that the reentry vehicle from the July 2017 test would have survived had it been launched on a minimum energy trajectory, although the source did not explain the reasoning for this statement32.
 

Solid Propellant Missiles

Unlike a liquid propellant rocket engine that is fed by fuel and oxidizer pumped into a combustion chamber, a solid propellant rocket motor uses a solid charge of propellant that is the consistency of a pencil eraser. This charge burns from the inside out, with that combustion producing the thrust that propels the rocket.

In recent years North Korea has begun to develop solid-propellant missiles, possibly to replace its arsenal of liquid propellant missiles. Although North Korea reverse engineered the solid-propellant Frog artillery rocket and the booster Styx/Silkworm missile in the 1970s, it was not until the mid-2000s that North Korea deployed a modern solid-propellant missile. In 2006, North Korea showed its first short-range solid propellant missile, the Hwasong-11. Because the missile was externally similar to Russia’s Tochka missile, US officials referred to the system as the Toksa, which is Korean for “viper” and a near-homophone for the Russian designation. North Korea later showed an improved variant of the missile.

Starting in 2016, North Korea developed a series of large-diameter solid-propellant rocket motors under the name Pukguksong, or North Star. The Pukguksong-1 is a 1.5m-diameter solid propellant missile designed for submarine launch. North Korea later tested a land-based variant known as the Pukguksong-2. North Korea subsequently showed additional variants of this missile – the Pukguksong-3, -4 and -5, although only the Pukguksong-3 has been flight tested.

Large diameter solid rocket motors require a number of technical innovations, such as case bonded propellants33. The Pukgugsong-series of solid-rocket motors was probably an important milestone in the development of North Korea’s solid-rocket motors, as it moved from relatively small systems based on the Frog and Toksa.

North Korea developed a series of modern artillery rockets including a 300 mm MLRS rocket and 600 mm MLRS (KN-25) rocket, which North Korea claims is armed with a nuclear warhead. North Korea manufactures 300 and 600mm MLRS rockets at the Kanggye General Tractory Factory in Jagang Province. Production of smaller caliber artillery rockets occurs at the Tonghungsan Machine Plant in Hamhung.

After 2019, North Korea tested a series of missiles sharing the Toksa’s Hwasong-11 name. The Hwasong-11 family of missiles comprises the Hwasong-11A (KN-23), Hwasong 11B (KN-24), Hwasong-11C, Hwasong-11D, and Hwasong-11S34. The Hwasong-11A is analogous to the Russian Iskander, while the smaller Hwasong-11B is analogous to the U.S. ATACMS. The Hwasong-11 family also includes the Hwasong-11C, which is described by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense as having a high-payload warhead; the Hwasong-11D, a close-range variant; and the Hwasong-11S, which is the naval version launched from submarines and canisters under reservoirs35. Most of the Hwasong-11 variants are probably manufactured at the February 11 General Machine Plant near Hamhung.

The DPRK has conducted many launches of these systems since 2019, including a test of a railcar-based Hwasong-11A. North Korea appears to have exported Hwasong-11 ballistic missiles to Russia. Images of debris from Russian missile strikes in Ukraine match images of Hwasong-11 missiles produced by North Korea36.

These missiles are capable of flying “aeroballistic” trajectories that allow them to maneuver in ways that complicate the task of missile defenses. Such missiles fly on trajectories with apogees below 50 km, which means that the US THAAD system deployed in South Korea and SM-3 interceptors deployed on US and Japanese Aegis destroyers are unlikely to be able to engage them successfully.

In 2023, North Korea conducted launches of both a solid propellant IRBM and the Hwasong-18 ICBM. These systems probably made use of technologies like case bonded propellants that would have been developed for the large diameter Pukguksong-series of solid rocket motors. The Hwasong-18 system is similar in size and performance to Russia’s Topol-M ICBM, although there are also significant differences between the systems. North Korea has a solid propellant IRBM with both a conical MaRV and a wing-shaped HGV. These missiles are probably designated the Hwasong-16A and B37.

 

Cruise Missiles

Unlike ballistic missiles, cruise missiles use small jet engines. North Korea began jet engine production at the April 4 Factory, near Panghyon, in the early 1980s. At some point, this facility appears to have begun to develop a small turbojet engine for North Korea’s cruise missiles and uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs).

North Korea began to produce a domestic variant of Russia’s Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missile, which it has deployed on both ground-based launches (as the Kumsong-3) and ships. Press reports indicate that North Korea may also have produced an air-launched variant of the cruise missile.

Since September 2021, North Korea has tested at least three variants of a long-range range cruise missile called the Hwasal (Hwasal-1, -2 and Pulhwasal-3-31). These cruise missiles are similar in size and shape to many other cruise missiles, including the US Tomahawk and the Soviet SSC-8. In 2023, North Korea conducted a Hwasal-2 test from a surface ship. Given North Korea’s experiments with air launched Styx/Silkworm and Kh-35 cruise missiles, Pyongyang may also be interested in developing an air-launched variant of the Hwasal cruise missile.

In 2023, North Korea displayed a pair of UAVs at a defense exhibition held for Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. These UAVs strongly resembled the large US Global Hawk and the medium-sized US Reaper.

 

Missile Deployments

Most of North Korea’s missiles are believed to be deployed by the Missile Guidance Bureau, previously named the Strategic Rocket Force. This probably includes legacy Scud and Nodong missiles, the longer-range “March 18 Revolution” systems like the Hwasong-12, -14, -15 and -17, as well as so-called “tactical” nuclear systems like the 600 mm MLRS, Hwasong-11 variants, and Hwasal cruise missiles.

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in 2017, “North Korea has several hundred short- and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs) available for use against targets on the Korean Peninsula and Japan”38. According to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, this includes “fewer than 100” Scud B/C launchers, “fewer than 100” Nodong launchers and “fewer than 50” Musudan launchers39.

In 2020, North Korea probably had around a dozen or so intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles – the Hwasong-12, -14, -15 and -17 launchers – according to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center. However in 2023, North Korea released an image showing 28 Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles at the Thaesong Machine Factory, suggesting that these systems are now in mass production.

Lower estimates of the number of ICBMs appear to have been based on the number of launchers. North Korea imported six heavy vehicles imported from China in 2008 and modified them to serve as missile transporter-erector-launchers (TELs). There is now considerable evidence that North Korea is developing domestic capability for the production of heavy-wheeled vehicles to launch intermediate- and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. Kyodo News reported that in February 2018, Kim Jong Un ordered the “mass production of vehicles used for transporting and launching missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles.” This order included funds to acquire foreign components for 70 launchers40. Satellite images show that North Korea expanded the primary facility for producing large TELs. Kim Jong Un visited this facility in August 2023, viewing what appeared to be several large transporter erector launchers in various stages of construction.

North Korea has also expanded production of smaller tracked and wheeled TELs for both new solid-propellant missiles and cruise missiles. In January 2023, the DPRK defense industry presented Kim Jong Un with a “gift” of about twenty 600 mm MLRS launchers. An additional two-dozen tracked and wheeled Hwasong-11-type launchers were shown under construction in August 2023 at the Sinhung Armored Vehicle Plant.

In addition to expanding production of TELs, North Korea has pursued a number of novel basing modes for its new solid-propellant ballistic missiles, conducting launches from rail cars and from a canister secured to the bottom of the Taechon reservoir.

North Korea has a program to develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability, but to date has conducted launches from what appears to be a single submarine, the Gorae. North Korea claims it is developing a nuclear-powered submarine but reports suggest this program is behind schedule41. North Korea has also conducted a launch of a “strategic” Hwasal cruise missile from a surface vessel.

North Korea has experimented with air-launched cruise missiles, including an air-launched Silkworm and Kh-35 missiles. It is possible that North Korea will modify some Hwasal cruise missiles for air-launch from North Korea’s small force of transport aircraft.

 

Policy Choices

Some analysts believe that Kim Jong Un might be persuaded to disarm with the right mix of incentives, although there is considerable disagreement about whether those incentives should emphasize positive inducements, like benefits to North Korea’s economy, or negative inducements, like sanctions or the threat of force. These analysts point to the negotiations that played out in Singapore and Hanoi as evidence that under the right circumstances, North Korea’s disarmament might be possible – although Trump Administration officials themselves disagreed about whether it was the threat of force or the promise of economic benefits that brought Kim to the table42.

Other analysts believe the substantial investment that North Korea has sustained over many decades in its missile programs indicates it is unlikely that the current regime under Kim Jong Un would seriously entertain such a notion. These analysts believe that while Kim was willing to forego politically provocative displays such as military parades and missile tests in exchange for sanctions relief, he was ultimately unwilling to stop the development of these systems or surrender them for elimination43.

A correlating question relates to the impact of international sanctions. Some sanctions are intended to create economic pressure that would persuade Kim Jong Un and other elites to abandon their missile programs. North Korean officials are clear that the country does desire relief from international sanctions. At the same time, many elites have earned their status within North Korea through their successful management of the country’s defense industries. The ability to tailor sanctions to shape Kim Jong Un’s political calculations probably depends critically on internal political dynamics, about which we know little.

Other sanctions are intended to inhibit North Korea’s ability to procure tools, materials and components needed for the development of its missile forces. It is difficult to assess the extent to which sanctions have impeded the development of North Korea’s missile capabilities. On one hand, North Korea has successfully flight tested a series of ICBMs, including one that is capable of delivering multiple warheads against the US homeland. On the other hand, North Korea was only able to do so after several false starts and over the course of three decades.

A final question relates to North Korea’s missile proliferation behavior. Sanctions appear to have reduced North Korea’s ability to sell missiles abroad in exchange for hard currency, as the number of customers for North Korea’s Scud-based missiles appears to have declined from the 1990s. At the same time, North Korea continues to maintain crucial relationships abroad, particularly with Iran, Syria and probably Egypt. The development of new capabilities, such as solid–propellant missiles and cruise missiles, might open new markets for North Korean missile sales. In August 2023, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited North Korea in what was widely interpreted as evidence that Russia might see North Korea as a source of low-cost munitions. The defense exhibition held for Shoigu pointedly included a number of missile systems, including the 600 mm MLRS.

For more information about the missile types, stages, range, payload and testing dates, click here

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Notes

  • 1. The U.S. first detected SA-2 missiles in North Korea in 1962. See: Special Annex to National Intelligence Estimate 42/14.2-65, SC 02583-65, The Korean Problem (January 22, 1965). On Soviet assistance in air defense to North Korea at this time, see also: Memorandum of Conversation between Soviet Ambassador to North Korea Vasily Moskovsky and Kim Il Sung, (August 14, 1962). Archive of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation (AVPRF), fond 0102, opis 18, papka 93, delo 5, listy 3-9. Obtained and translated for NKIDP by Sergey Radchenko. North Korea continued to press for SA-2 (S75) surface-to-air missiles throughout the 1960s. See: Record of a conversation with the Soviet Ambassador in the DPRK Comrade V.P. Moskovsky about the negotiations between the Soviet delegation, led by the USSR Council of Ministers Chairman Kosygin, and the governing body of the Korean Workers Party, which took place at the USSR Embassy in the DPRK on February 16, 1965.
  • 2. China appears to have aided North Korea in the production of SA-2 and Styx cruise missiles following a September 1971 agreement for “gratis” military aid. See: “PRC Signs Military Aid Agreement with North Korea,” FBIS Trends, September 9, 1971, p. 41; North Korea: New Weapons in the Military Forces, Central Intelligence Agency, Directorate of Intelligence, October 15, 1985; and Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK, CNS Occasional Paper No 2 (1999)
  • 3. On SA-2 production at Kangsong-ni, see: Annual Index Photographic Exploitation Products January-December 1986, National Photographic Interpretation Center, PEP-014/87, April 1, 1987, noting the “The first sighting of possible tactical surface-to-surface missiles at a North Korean missile production facility.” On FROG production at the January 18 General Machine Plant, see: Prepared Statement of Ko Young-Hwan, North Korean Missile Proliferation, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation, and Federal Services pf the Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, S. Hrg. 105-241, October 21 1997.
  • 4. Lewis, John W., and Hua Di. “China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals.” International Security 17 (October 1, 1992). http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/publications/chinas_ballistic_missile_prog...
  • 5. Lewis and Hua Di, 33
  • 6. North Korea and the Missile Technology Control Regime, Department of State (1995) states that two Scud-B missiles and their associated TELs were transferred in 1983. The 1982 date is from Central Intelligence Agency, Director of Intelligence, Handbook of Major Foreign Weapon Systems Exported to the Third World: 1981-86, Volume II, Ground Forces Equipment, GI 87-10075 (November 1987). That document indicates that 6 missiles and/or launchers were transferred.
  • 7. United States Department of State, DPRK Missile Program for Michael Rosenthal [Includes Attachment], 2000.
  • 8. United States Department of State. North Korea [Includes Talking Points], 1998.
  • 9. A note on nomenclature. North Korea calls most of its missiles Hwasong, which means “Bright Star” and is the Korean name for Mars. Because North Korea, like the Soviet Union or China, does not always reveal the name of its missiles in a timely fashion, the US intelligence community maintains its own list of designations. In naming North Korean missiles, the United States initially carried over the US designation for any system with a Soviet or Chinese analogue (Styx, Silkworm, Scud). When North Korean missiles without a Soviet or Chinese analogue began to appear, the United States named the missile after the populated place nearest to where it was first observed. (No-dong, Taepo-dong, and Musudan-ri are all populated places near North Korea’s first missile test site.) After the mid-2000s, as the large number of missile types greatly exceeded the number of populated places, the United States switching to numerical designators (eg KN-01, KN-02, and so on). In general, I try to use the North Korean name, with the US designation after in parentheses. However, in some cases we do not know the North Korean designation, while in others we do not know the US designation.
  • 10. 국방부 (Ministry of National Defense), 북한 장거리 미사일 잔해 조사 결과 (North Korean long-range missile wreckage investigation results), January 18, 2013.
  • 11. BG Patrick O’Reilly, USA, Deputy Director, Missile Defense Agency, Missile Defense Program Overview for the Washington Roundtable on Science and Public Policy, January 29, 2007, p. 4.
  • 12. Yossi Melman, “How the Mossad killed a deal with Kim Il-sung,” Haaretz, June 27, 2006.
  • 13. Gary Samore, “U.S.-DPRK Missile Negotiations,” The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2002, pp 16-20.
  • 14. Joby Warrick, “Documents shed light on North Korea’s startling gains in sea-based missile technology,” Washington Post, December 27, 2017.
  • 15. Sonni Efron, “N. Korea Working on Missile Accuracy,” Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2003.
  • 16. Vice Admiral Lowell E. Jacoby, U.S. Navy, Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Statement For The Record, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, February 24, 2004.
  • 17. Einar Koch, “Irans Raketen reichen bald bis Berlin!” Bild.de, Decembger 15, 2005.
  • 18. Andrew Higgins, “Two North Korean Spies, a Ukrainian Jail and a Murky Tale,” New York Times, September 28, 2017.
  • 19. Tomotaro Inoue, “N. Korea suspected of providing Iran with missile components,” Kyodo News June 26, 2015. The reference to the engine’s thrust occurs only in the Japanese language version of the story.
  • 20. “Treasury Sanctions Those Involved in Ballistic Missile Procurement for Iran,” January 17, 2016. https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jl0322
  • 21. Michael Elleman, “The secret to North Korea’s ICBM success,” IISS Online Analysis, August 14, 2017.
  • 22. Ankit Panda, “North Korea Tests High-Thrust Rocket Engine of ‘Historic Significance.’” The Diplomat, March 20th, 2017.
    https://thediplomat.com/2017/03/north-korea-tests-high-thrust-rocket-eng...
  • 23. Robert Schmucker, 3rd World Missile Development - A New Assessment Based on UNSCOM Field Experience and Data Evaluation, 12th Multinational Conference on Theater Missile Defense, Responding to an Escalating Threat, June 1-4, 1999. See also: Markus Schiller, Characterizing the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat, RAND Technical Report, 2012.
  • 24. Elleman, ibid.
  • 25. Jonathan Landay, “North Korea likely can make missile engines without imports: U.S.,” Reuters, August 15, 2017.
  • 26. Technical Issues Related to Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Committee on Technical Issues Related to Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2002, p. 66.
  • 27. Jeffrey Lewis, “North Korea’s Big Bang,” Foreign Policy, February 13, 2013.
  • 28. “KCNA Report on One More Successful Underground Nuclear Test,” KCNA, May 25, 2009.
  • 29. Ankit Panda, “US Intelligence: North Korea’s Sixth Test Was a 140 Kiloton ‘Advanced Nuclear’ Device North Korea’s sixth nuclear test was easily its biggest yet, according to early U.S. intelligence estimates,” The Diplomat, September 6, 2017.
  • 30. David Brunnstrom, “North Korean ICBM appears to have failed on re-entry: U.S. expert,” Reuters, July 31, 2017.
  • 31. James M. Acton, Jeffrey G. Lewis, and David Wright, “Video Analysis of the Reentry of North Korea’s July 28, 2017 Missile Test,” armscontrolwonk.com, November 9, 2018.
  • 32. Ankit Panda, “US Intelligence: North Korea’s ICBM Reentry Vehicles Are Likely Good Enough to Hit the Continental US,” The Diplomat, August 12, 2017.
  • 33. Leonard H. Caveny, Robert L. Geisler, Russell A. Ellis, and Thomas L. Moore, “Solid Rocket Enabling Technologies and Milestones in the United States,” Journal of Propulsion and Power 19:6, November 2003.
  • 34. Colin Zwirko, “North Korea reveals internal names for several missile systems: Analysis,” NK News, April 3, 2023.
  • 35. Ibid.
  • 36. Jon Herskovitz, “North Korea Likely Sending Its Newest Missiles to Russia,” Bloomberg, January 5, 2024. See also: Documenting a North Korean missile in Ukraine, Ukraine Field Dispatch, Conflict Armament Research, January 2024.
  • 37. North Korea labeled the solid-propellant IRBM as the Hwasong-16B, which implies that the variant with a conical MaRV is the Hwasong-16A, although this is not confirmed. “DPRK Missile Administration Succeeds in Test-fire of New-type Intermediate-range Hypersonic Missile,” Rodong Sinmun, April 3, 2024.
  • 38. Military And Security Developments Involving The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2017, p. 10.
  • 39. Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, 2020.
  • 40. Tomotaro Inoue, “North Korea mass producing ballistic missile transporters: sources,” Kyodo News, December 23, 2019.
  • 41. Jeong Tae Joo, “N. Korea replaces, punishes 14 cadres and technicians working on nuclear-powered submarine program,” DailyNK.com, November 15, 2021.
  • 42. Siegfried S. Hecker, Robert L. Carlin and Elliot Serbin, “The More We Wait, The Worse It Will Get,” 38North.org, September 4, 2019; Leon V. Sigal, “Picking Up the Pieces from Hanoi,” 38North.org, March 5, 2019
  • 43. Jeffrey Lewis, “It’s Time to Accept That North Korea Has Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, October 13, 2022; Ankit Panda, How to Reduce Nuclear Risks Between the United States and North Korea, United States Institute of Peace, February 5, 2024.