The North Korean Missile Threat

Jan. 1, 2000
North Korea has embarked on a broad buildup of its ballistic missile force and is on the verge of fielding an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capable of reaching the United States.

This development of long-range missiles capable of delivering chemical, biological, and eventually nuclear warheads is taking place at the same time the secretive Stalinist government in Pyongyang is facing severe economic problems. North Korean poverty is staggering-one recent US intelligence report said famine in the northeast Asia state has led to cannibalism.

“It is now believed that two types of North Korean Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles can strike the continental United States with weapons of mass destruction,” said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee and head of a special advisory panel on North Korea. “For the first time in our history, we are within missile range of an arguably irrational rogue regime. Regrettably, we cannot defend against that threat.”

The problem of North Korean missiles is made worse by the fact that Pyongyang has become a wholesaler of missiles and related technology and materials. In the words of one US defense official: “They are becoming The Home Depot for missile sales around the world.”

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen identi-fied North Korea’s long-range missiles as a key factor in Pentagon plans to develop a nationwide defense against ballistic missiles. “The threat threshold has been crossed,” Cohen said in an interview at the end of a recent trip through Asia. “The threat is growing. I think that, with the spread of technology, with the transfer of this technology between rogue states, it poses an increasing threat. I don’t think there is any question about that.”

“Strategic” Arms

Today’s three principal rogues-North Korea, Iran, and Iraq-seek to acquire these long-range missiles because they are strategic weapons. Long-range missiles represent a threat by their presence alone. According to a recent government study, “We judge that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq would view their ICBMs more as strategic weapons of deterrence and coercive diplomacy than as weapons of war.”

In another recent report, the Air Force’s National Air Intelligence Center at Wright­Patterson AFB, Ohio, described North Korea’s missile program as extensive. “North Korea has ambitious ballistic missile development programs and has exported missile technology to other countries, including Iran and Pakistan,” the unclassified report said. “The North Koreans have already flight-tested their No Dong MRBs [Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles], and the Taepo Dong 1 MRBM booster was used in an attempt to orbit a satellite in August 1998.” The test showed the two-stage booster “apparently performed successfully,” the report said.

Cohen argued that defenses against long-range missiles will prevent “intimidation, blackmail, or extortion” by countries like North Korea. “We don’t want to be in a position of having someone blackmail us with this kind of capability,” he said.

North Korea has moved quickly to a high position on the intelligence community’s strategic missile threat list, ranking a notch below Russia and China. A National Intelligence Estimate–a consensus view of more than 10 US intelligence organizations–was made public in September. It warned of new dangers from North Korea’s missile program.

“We project that during the next 15 years the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq,” the report said.

The report notes that North Korea is the driver in the spread of missiles. “The proliferation of Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles-driven primarily by North Korean No Dong sales-has created an immediate, serious, and growing threat to US forces, interests, and allies and has significantly altered the strategic balances in the Middle East and Asia,” it stated.

The report went on, “We judge that countries developing missiles view their regional concerns as one of the primary factors in tailoring their programs. They see their short- and medium-range missiles not only as deterrents but also as force-multiplying weapons of war, primarily with conventional weapons, but with options for delivering biological, chemical, and eventually nuclear weapons.”

The Clinton Administration has sought to highlight the positive elements of its policy toward North Korea, which was the focus of a major review by former Defense Secretary William J. Perry. Perry reported his findings to the President in September and called for continued engagement with the communist government in Pyongyang with the goal of normalizing relations that have been hostile since the end of the Korean War.

Perry’s “Urgent Focus”

The Perry report stated that “the urgent focus of US policy toward the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea] must be to end its nuclear weapons and long-range missile­related activities.”

As part of the new policy, President Clinton lifted some economic sanctions against North Korea, and in response Pyongyang announced it would “not launch a missile”–the Taepo Dong 2–during talks with the United States. “Pledges are important,” said State Department spokesman James B. Foley of the North Korean testing moratorium. “Actions are equally or even more important, but I am not aware that we have reason to disbelieve the pledge.”

Within days of making the announcement, however, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency made clear that the testing moratorium would not stop the weapons buildup. “The DPRK has built up its defense power very expensively,” the agency said. “The Korean people have strengthened the defense capabilities to the maximum [by] fastening their belts.”

Indeed, widespread famine has killed thousands in North Korea. In 1996, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il called for a crackdown on cannibalism after three cases were reported, one US intelligence report said.

“There is reason to be concerned about North Korea today,” Gilman said. “The threat to US interests continues and is in fact spreading into less conventional areas. The DPRK has deployed three new types of missiles since 1993–the newest capable of striking our nation. This is a clear and present danger to our national security and allows North Korea to create a balance of terror in northeast Asia.”

Gilman views North Korea as the greatest of the world’s proliferators of missiles and enabling technologies. “Its transfers to South Asia and to the Middle East are particularly distressing and potentially destabilizing,” he said.

Worse, Gilman believes the North Koreans secretly are continuing to develop nuclear weapons-despite agreement with the US not to do so. “North Korea may still be pursuing a nuclear program,” he said. “The DPRK may be seeking a parallel program based on Highly Enriched Uranium which strongly suggests that North Korea never intended to curb its nuclear ambitions.

“My greatest fear is that this unpredictable regime in Pyongyang will combine its covert nuclear weapons program with an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile capable of striking the United States-and our policy will have failed to prevent it.”

Clinton “Very Hopeful”

President Clinton brushed aside North Korea’s unpredictable behavior and said he is hopeful the pledge not to test the Taepo Dong will hold. “[The agreement] offers the most promising opportunity to lift the cloud of uncertainty and insecurity and danger that otherwise would hang over that whole region, including the American servicemen and -women who are there,” the President said Sept. 22. “I am very, very hopeful about it. If it works, it does. If it does not, there will be other options open to us.”

The United States maintains about 100,000 airmen, soldiers, sailors, and Marines in the Pacific. All are vulnerable in one way or another to North Korean missiles. US military planners believe any North Korean military operation will be a blitzkrieg–an all-out attack on South Korea, bolstered by deadly conventional, chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear missile attacks on US forces in the region. The goal would be to inflict as many casualties as possible on the United States in the shortest period of time because of North Korea’s inability to resupply its forces.

Robert D. Walpole, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, stated in Congressional testimony that North Korea has joined Russia and China as one of the very few nations capable of striking the United States with a strategic missile.

“After Russia and China, North Korea is the most likely to develop ICBMs capable of threatening the United States during the next 15 years,” Walpole said.

North Korea shocked Asia and the world in August 1998 when it test fired its first three-stage Taepo Dong 1 over the Sea of Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

The missile test has become the prototype for states that are building long-range missiles. It was disguised as a space launch vehicle and nearly succeeded in orbiting a small satellite. Walpole told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 16 that the military version of the Taepo Dong 1 most likely will carry biological or chemical warfare agents far enough to hit the United States.

The real danger, he said, is in a longer range Taepo Dong 2 that US intelligence agencies have been closely watching. The TD 2 was set for launch last summer according to CIA officials. It was delayed under frantic US diplomatic pressure and appeals to China to intervene with North Korea to put off the test.

“A two-stage Taepo Dong 2 could deliver a several hundred­kilogram payload to Alaska and Hawaii and a lighter payload to the western half of the United States,” Walpole warned. “A three-stage Taepo Dong 2 could deliver a several hundred­kilogram payload anywhere in the United States. North Korea is much more likely to weaponize the more capable Taepo Dong 2 than the Taepo Dong 1 as an ICBM.”

A senior US intelligence official who briefed reporters on the CIA missile threat report said that North Korea’s long-range missile program will only be slowed, not stopped, by diplomatic efforts.

“If they don’t fly it, then they don’t know if the first stage will work the way they want it to,” the official said. “They would be relatively confident the second stage would work because it’s already flown once as a first stage.”

The lack of a flight test for the Taepo Dong 2 “would certainly slow the program down, stall the program,” he said. “Then what we’d be faced with is a threat from an untested system, a completely untested system. That gets pretty hard to try to define, so I think it would really stall the program. Does it eliminate it? No.”

Work Continues

In fact, the US Intelligence Community has concluded that the development of the Taepo Dong 2 is continuing, despite the pledge by North Korea not to conduct a flight test. USAF’s National Air Intelligence Center, the community’s premier missile monitoring center, reported that Pyongyang is “continuing development of the Taepo Dong,” said one official who has seen the report.

“They are still improving the TD 2 and proceeding with development,” said the official. “In fact, their level of confidence in the TD 2 may be high enough to have it available [for use] without any flight test.”

The official stopped short of saying the missile is “deployed,” but he noted that, because of the unusual methods used by the North Koreans for developing their missiles with a few flight tests, the missile has to be considered a threat.

The CIA believes the Taepo Dong 2 could be tested at any time the North Koreans choose to do so, although there are no signs a test launch is imminent.

The major fear of Clinton Administration policy-makers is that a second long-range missile flight test will cause support from Japan and South Korea for the nuclear agreement with North Korea to evaporate.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said during a recent hearing that North Korea has been working overtime on its missiles.

“One of our worst fears has materialized,” Helms said. “North Korea, right now, could convert its Taepo Dong 1 missile to drop anthrax on the United States.”

Worries do not end with the Taepo Dong. North Korea also has developed a new 620-mile-range No Dong missile. The No Dong was flight-tested only once but is believed by military officials to be deployed and to pose a direct threat to troops not only in South Korea but at bases in Japan as well.

Deployed or Not

Officially, the Pentagon won’t say if they consider the No Dong deployed and threatening. However, one senior intelligence official said that one flight test was enough to show the North Koreans that the missile works. “Given everything that’s gone on, you would be real smart to consider it deployed,” the official said.

Cohen has refused to say publicly that the No Dong is deployed. Last year he was asked about the system and would say only that it has “completed development.” The careful answer was an apparent attempt to mask the fact that the missile currently threatens US troops in Asia and there are no defenses against it yet.

The Congressional panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, however, appeared more candid. The panel’s report issued in July 1998 states: “The commission judges that the No Dong was operationally deployed long before the US government recognized that fact. There is ample evidence that North Korea has created a sizable missile production infrastructure, and therefore it is highly likely that considerable numbers of No Dongs have been produced.”

Because of the Intelligence Community’s failure to assess both the scope and pace of the No Dong development, the Rumsfeld commission warned that “the United States may have very little warning prior to deployment of the Taepo Dong 2”–the missile that can target the United States.

The North Koreans also have exported the No Dong to Pakistan and Iran. The No Dongs have been, as one official put it, “repainted” and named the Ghauri and Shahab 3 missiles.

“Obviously, North Korea has them, and Pakistan has the No Dong derivatives as a Ghauri,” the official said. “The Shahab 3 is based on it as well with some other foreign assistance. I don’t expect it to stop there. … I expect over time we’re going to see more countries emerge with them.”

The US Intelligence Community also is very concerned about North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons program, which was supposed to be halted by the 1994 Agreed Framework that was to have frozen Pyongyang’s drive for what could only be nuclear missile warheads.

“We’ve been concerned about that nuclear program for some time,” the intelligence official said. “The North Koreans had enough nuclear material for one or two nuclear devices several years ago.”

The Energy Department intelligence office, which monitors nuclear weapons programs around the world, reported last year that a North Korean government trading company was shopping for uranium enrichment technology in Japan. The report said that the North Koreans, with help from Pakistan, could develop a uranium-fueled nuclear weapon in six years.

“On the basis of Pakistan’s progress with a similar technology, we estimate that the DPRK is at least six years from the production of HEU”–Highly Enriched Uranium used in nuclear weapons, the report said. “On the other hand, with significant technical support from other countries, such as Pakistan, the time frame would be decreased by several years.”

The North Korean missile program began with the purchase of Soviet­designed Scud short-range surface-to-surface missiles from Egypt. The North Koreans then built their own longer range Scuds and began exporting Scud know-how around the world.

North Korean Scuds and Scud production equipment have been transferred to Egypt, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Pakistan.

Instant Missile

On June 25, Indian authorities seized a North Korean ship bound for Pakistan carrying 170 tons of missile components, as well as blueprints, drawings, and instruction manuals for missiles. US intelligence agencies later determined that some of the equipment may have been Chinese in origin.

According to Indian press accounts, the North Korean ship was carrying all the components needed for building missiles. It included heavy-duty presses, lathe machines used for flattening and milling high-grade steel sheets, a plate bending machine with three rollers capable of rolling 16 mm-thick sheets into 700 mm diameters (for use in the manufacture of engine casings), “Torroidal” air bottles (used to guide missile warheads), two sets of theodolites (used to survey missile launch sites), three electronic weighing machines, a digital micron soldering machine, 1.5 mm forged steel bars (used for making missile components), and water refining and filtration machinery (used to purify water for washing missile casings). The equipment was destined for a missile factory in Pakistan.

Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a private analyst who specializes in North Korean missile programs, said North Korea has been building missiles for 30 years. “It’s only in the past 10, however, that we’ve really taken notice in that it’s threatening not only our allies but is beginning to threaten us directly,” Bermudez told a House committee hearing in October.

“During the past 15 to 20 years, it has taken that program and exported the products of the program, which has extended its threat, indirect threat, to other allies in other areas of strategic interest to the United States,” he said.

Bermudez has categorized North Korea’s missiles in three groups: Scuds, No Dong, and Taepo Dong. The short-range Scuds threaten all of South Korea, while the No Dong is the first North Korean missile designed specifically to deliver nuclear warheads. The Taepo Dongs have built upon the Scud and No Dong, literally. According to US intelligence officials, the North Koreans built the Taepo Dong 1 by taking the medium-range No Dong and placing a Scud on top of it.

According to Bermudez, the Taepo Dong 1 test in August 1998 combined a third stage to launch a satellite. It failed to reach orbit but still successfully demonstrated the most important elements of long-range missile technology, such as stabilizing a payload during launch and successfully separating three stages.

“If that system had been used instead … [as] a ballistic missile, [it] would have a range in excess of 4,000 kilometers,” Bermudez said. “If they had done a few other things, it could have a range of approximately 10,000 kilometers with like a 200-kilogram warhead-not very significant in size, but in range it actually puts the United States at risk.”

The North Koreans have produced a total of between 750 and 1,150 ballistic missiles, and as many as 400 of them have been sold overseas. “Those states include Egypt, Iran; there’s been possibly some cooperation with Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam,” Bermudez said.

The Air Force NAIC report on continuing Taepo Dong development is one of several intelligence reports circulated to senior Clinton Administration policy-makers in September and October indicating that the new conciliatory approach to the reclusive communist state is not working.

In addition to continued long-range missile development, US intelligence agencies uncovered information about North Korea’s sales of missiles and related goods to rogue states.

Pentagon intelligence agencies reported in the fall that North Korea offered to Sudan an entire factory for assembling Scud missiles, like those produced in North Korea. Also, North Korea recently supplied 10 tons of aluminum powder obtained from China to Syria, another intelligence report stated. The aluminum powder is being used by the agency of the Syrian government involved in building weapons of mass destruction and missiles, said an official who has seen the report sent to senior US policy-makers.

One official said the recent intelligence reports are a clear sign the new policy is not working. “So much for the Perry approach,” this official said.

North Korean Missiles
Stages Propellant Range (miles) Status
Scud B 1 liquid 185 Operational
Scud C 1 liquid 310 Operational
No Dong 1 liquid 800 Operational
Taepo Dong 1 2 liquid 925-1,240 Development
Taepo Dong 2 2 liquid 2,500-3,700 Development
TD 1 plus 3 liquid/solid 2,400-3,500 Development

(test fired 8/31/98)

TD 2 plus 3 liquid/solid anywhere in US Development

Source: NAIC and North Korea Advisory Group report.

North Korean Sites

Launch Sites:

Mt. Kanggamchan (Chugsan County, South Pyongan Province)

Mayangdo (Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province)

Paekun-ri (Kusong County, North Pyongan Province)

Nodong-Taepodong (Hwadae County, North Hamgyong Province)

Chonggang-up (Huchang County, Chagang Province)

Nodongja-ku in Okpyong (Munchon County, Kangwon Province)

Chiha-ri (Ichon County, Kangwon Province)

Sangwon County, Oryu-ri, and Chunghwa County (in Pyongyang)

Toksong County (South Hamgyong Province) (under construction)

Yongo-tong (South Hamgyong Province) (under construction)

Four missile production sites:

Plant No. 26 in Kanggye, Chagang Province (missile components)

Plant No. 118 in Kagam-ri, Kaechon County (engines)

Plant No. 125 in Chunggye-tong, Hyongjesan District, Pyongyang (component assembly)

Yakchon Machinery Plant in Mangyongdae-ri, Pyongyang (explosive compounds).

Source: South Korea’s Hangyore (Internet version)

Bill Gertz is the defense and national security affairs reporter for The Washington Times and author of Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security, published by Regnery Publishing. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Missile Threats and Defenses,” appeared in the October 1998 issue.