The DPRK Missile Show: A Comedy in (Currently) Eight Acts

Draft paper by Robert Schmucker and Markus Schiller
May 5, 2010

Download the PDF here

Today, there are at least seven different missile types of longer range available in North Korea – Scud B, Scud C, Scud D, Nodong, R-27/BM-25, Taepodong 1 and Taepodong 2/Unha-2. All were developed during the last three decades, each of them within a few years, and six are subject to the INF treaty. Some of the missiles have common roots, but their diameters vary significantly, ranging from 0.88 m over roughly 1.3 m and 1.5 m to about 2.5 m. This means that North Korea managed to develop at least four completely different lines of missiles to perfection and serial production, all of them with a negligible number of test launches. A total of roughly a dozen missile tests was actually observed before 2009, a number that is even today insufficient for only one military missile development in the USA, Russia, China or France. The repeating reports of North Korean “short range missile tests” are irrelevant – at those tests, the DPRK launches small anti ship missiles that were purchased in China or Russia. This has nothing to do with ballistic missiles.

It is often argued that the North Korean missiles are tested in other countries, namely Syria, Pakistan and Iran. This argument is insufficient. Combining all Scud B, C, D and Nodong launches in these countries, they are still not enough for a respective indigenous development, and the other missile types were never launched outside the DPRK. The choice of launch sites in the respective countries also is a clear indication: Pakistan tests its missiles close to Cashmere at the border to India, and as previously mentioned, Syria launched Scud D at the Israeli border. If the missiles head in the wrong direction – what is not uncommon at development tests –, this would have catastrophic consequences. Therefore, it must be assumed that these missiles had already had finished their development programs.

Aside of their small number, the sequence of North Korean tests is also noteworthy. There were only sporadic launches from 1984 to 2006, with a total of roughly ten. This was followed in 2006 and 2009 with an event of about a half dozen missile launches within a few hours, respectively, both including a large satellite launch vehicle. There might be a link to Iran’s and Pakistan’s orientation towards modern solid rocket technology. Russia can offer nothing on this market because of the imposed restrictions of the INF treaty – there are no old Soviet solid fueled missiles of this performance class, and new developments in this class are not allowed by INF – the required tests might be observed by the USA. Iran also increases its indigenous activities, resulting in a foreseeable loss of this source of funding. No wonder that the DPRK now has to demonstrate larger systems to stay in the proliferation game.

This is the visible North Korean situation: A country that has absolutely no other technical and economic merits offers a variety of quickly reverse engineered and indigenously developed high tech weapons, all of them with typical Soviet characteristics.

Every other country in the World had to rely on outside help of experienced institutions for their missile programs: China on Russia, India on the US and France, Pakistan on China and France, and so on. Even the US and the Soviets acquired German expertise after World War 2. Every country had foreign support for their missiles – except the DPRK.

It should be noted here that the common view of North Korea’s reverse engineering capabilities seems to come from one single source in the late 1980s, without any further proof. Today, this source is reported to see these claims with different eyes.

To get back to the analysis method that was introduced at the beginning: The three aspects country, program and missile are not compatible. The DPRK has no capabilities on any other area than rocketry, the programs are invisible or nonexistent, but a selection of operational missiles is offered that should even have countries like France, for example, go green with envy.

It is also strange that Russia silently watches the DPRK cloning and selling Soviet products, thus earning hundreds of millions of dollars, and doing this without any financial compensation for the Russians.

These antagonisms can be explained on several ways. Some claim that in the age of computer simulations, a single test is enough to proof functionality of highly complex machines such as missiles. After that, the missile goes straight into serial production. But this obviously only works in the DPRK: The new Russian submarine missile Bulava, for example, seems to have failed in 7 of its 12 flight tests so far – operational deployment is far from any discussion.

There is a different explanation that is much simpler – a connection to Russian institutions. All of the North Korean missiles were procured from Russia or at least realized with foreign support. Some, as Scud B, might come from old stocks, single remainders of old Soviet prototypes certainly were among them, and others might still be in production. A guided North Korean licensed production of simpler components can also not be excluded. In any case, the indigenous contributions of the DPRK are small at best. It is not said, though, that the Russian government or the leadership of the institutions in question know of this: Much happens in dark alleys, as was illustrated by the example of the Gharbiya gyros for Iraq.

The DPRK will of course try to reverse engineer parts and components, and it will try to acquire the capabilities for indigenous development and production. Due to this, single engine tests should be observable, not only to demonstrate indigenous activities, but also to learn and to slowly increase the DPRK’s competence on the missile sector.

But in the public opinion, this explanation is wrong, because – well, because it cannot be right. Because there is a well established view of North Korea that is also confirmed by defectors: The rockets are secretly designed, tested and produced in huge underground facilities, and these efforts are directed by an evil and megalomaniac villain who threatens the free world with his missiles.

How to best counter this type of threat should be known from the movies – just call James Bond.

More from CxI and NPR.


Comments are closed.