Missile matters

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

NORTH KOREA CENTRAL Television in a broadcast on September 5, 1999, described this as a Taepodong -1 missile. North Korea test-fired this type of missile in August 1998. -

NORTH KOREA CENTRAL Television in a broadcast on September 5, 1999, described this as a Taepodong -1 missile. North Korea test-fired this type of missile in August 1998. -

North Korea's missile development, which began in the early 1960s, benefited greatly from Soviet and Chinese assistance.

ON April 28, 2005, the United States Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director, Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby made a startling statement at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on North Korea. He suggested that North Korea could attach a nuclear warhead to an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S.

He testified that North Korea's ICBM under development, Taepodong-2, with a "guesstimated range of 5000 km" could deliver a "nuclear warhead to parts of the United States in a two-stage variant and target all of North America with a three-stage variant". At the same hearing, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) testified that the North Korean missile was capable of reaching the U.S. with a "nuclear-weapon-sized payload".

This assessment came at a time when North Korea had not tested a nuclear device, a necessary step for developing a reliable warhead system that can be delivered with long-range ballistic missiles. However, in March 2005 Pyongyang claimed that it had become "a full-fledged nuclear-weapon state". Notwithstanding the DIA's statement, the U.S., according to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, had no clear evidence whether Pyongyang had a missile-capable warhead or not.

The official U.S. perception was based on an August 2003 CIA report, which said that North Korea had "validated" designs for "simple fission" nuclear weapons without conducting explosive tests. The U.S. Department of Defence defines "a simple fission weapon" as one that "could be delivered by aircraft or tactical missile" and not an ICBM.

"In the near term", a 1999 DIA report said, North Korea would not be able to develop a nuclear warhead lighter than 650-700 kg but it added that Taepodong-2 could deliver a 650 kg warhead to Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest. Only with a much lighter warhead most of the U. S. would come under an ICBM threat. A 1999 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), too, said that Taepodong-2 could deliver a "several hundred kg" payload. According to analysts, 650 kg is about the maximum payload weight that Taepodong-2 can deliver to parts of the U.S.

The low magnitude of the seismic signal (of around 4.0) from North Korea's October 9 nuclear test has led to speculation about the nature of the weapon. Was it a dud? Was it just conventional explosives with a yield of one kilo tonne (kT)? Was it a proper weapon with a yield of several kT - Russia put the figure at 5 kT-15 kT immediately after the test - set off in a large cavity to muff the seismic signal? Or was it a compact low-yield (about 1 kT) device meant to be a missile warhead?

A North Korean member of the Supreme People's Assembly, who had defected to the South, claimed some time back that Pyongyang had developed a device weighing about a tonne with just 4 kg of plutonium. Though many doubt this claim, if true it would mean that the North Koreans have mastered the implosion technique. With improved implosion techniques, it is possible that Kim Jong-il's nuclear engineers have developed a missile-capable, low-yield and compact warhead weighing about half a tonne.

But Taepodong-2, which is also known as Paektusan-2, is yet to be flight-tested. The latest round of North Korea's seven missile tests on July 5, breaking the moratorium it had committed itself to with the U.S. in 1999 and with Japan in 2002, included Taepodong-2. But it failed 40 seconds after lift-off at Masudan-ri in North Hamyong province and crashed into the sea 1.5 km away.

So, even if the nuclear test was a successful one with a compact missile-capable warhead, Pyongyang is yet to have an operational ICBM capability. U.S. intelligence believes this is only a matter of time. North Korea's missile development history perhaps makes it the most advanced among the later breed of missile-capable nations. Some analysts feel that North Korea could have such an operational system by 2015.

North Korea already has an array of short- and intermediate-range missile systems that can deliver conventional, chemical and perhaps biological weapons. It has deployed 600 to 800 short-range (300-700 km) Hwasong (Scud) missile variants, 150 to 200 medium-range (1,000-1,300 km) Nodong missiles and maybe 10 intermediate range (2,000-2,200 km) Taepodong-1 missiles. The longer-range Taepodong-2 is perhaps ready for deployment (infographic on page 10).

As analysts have noted, their programme is remarkable because with a relatively small number of flight tests they have been able to achieve an operational system comprising such a range of missiles.

In May 2005 and March 2006, North Korea tested KN-02, a new solid-fuelled tactical ballistic missile based on the Soviet SS-21 Scarab with an improved range of 100-120 km intended specifically to strike U.S. military installations in South Korea. Over 100 of these may have been already deployed. The last round of tests apparently included a new variant of Scud, with an extended range of 850 km. A new missile, Taepodong-X, which experts say is a surface missile based on the Soviet R-27/SS-N-6 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and has a range of 2,500-4,000 km, was, however, not tested. But 50 of these may have already been deployed.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry described the July 5 launches as part of the "People's Army's routine military exercises to increase the nation's capacity for self-defence". The Ministry added that since North Korea was not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it is not bound by international laws or agreements restricting its missile tests. In fact, during the May 2005 tests of the KN-02 missiles it claimed that its moratorium had lost its validity because both the U.S. and Japan had not honoured their parts of the commitment and continued their hostile policies towards North Korea.

However, on July 15 the United Nations Security Council, acting under its special responsibility "for the maintenance of international peace and security", unanimously adopted Resolution 1695, which demanded that North Korea suspend all its missile-related activities and reinstate its moratorium on missile launches. It also called upon all U.N. members to prevent the transfer of missile-related technologies and materials to North Korea and not to procure such items from that country.

The resolution is widely seen as a landmark one because it was the first on North Korea in 13 years; China and Russia did not favour the original resolution tabled by Japan and eight others and presented an alternative one jointly. The North Korean representative condemned the resolution as an attempt "of some countries to misuse the Security Council for the despicable political aim to isolate and put pressure" on his country, and vowed to continue the launches to bolster his country's self-defence.

North Korea's missile development would seem to have benefited greatly from Soviet and Chinese assistance. It began the development of rockets and missiles in the early 1960s, with cooperation from the Soviet Union, which supplied surface-to-ship missiles and FROG-5/7 rockets. It is generally believed that the Soviets initially declined North Korea's requests for ballistic missiles in the mid-1960s, following which North Korea turned to China for ballistic missile development.

By 1970, it had begun to acquire surface-to-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles and technical assistance from China. In September 1971, North Korea and China signed an agreement for missile development. However, the cooperation got under way sometime in 1977 when North Korean engineers participated in the joint development of DF-61, a 600-km mobile ballistic missile. After this initial training, this cooperation seems to have ended.

Despite the earlier refusal, North Korea succeeded in acquiring a few Soviet Scud missiles in the early 1970s. It also received a few Scud-B (R-17) short-range (300 km) missiles from Egypt between 1976 and 1981. North Korea's reverse engineering of Scuds seems to have begun then and an indigenous version of Scud-B (Hwasong-5) was developed and flight-tested in 1984.

In 1985, Iran stepped in under a bilateral agreement to provide financial assistance for missile development in return for an offer of North Korean missiles. Experts believe that Iran's use of Scud-B during the Iran-Iraq war provided Pyongyang with flight data, thus obviating extensive testing on its own territory. Serial production of Hwasong-5 seems to have started around 1987. According to unconfirmed reports, between 1985 and 1988 the Soviet Union also delivered over 200 Scud missiles.

North Korea soon undertook the development of the indigenous version of Scud-C with a longer range of 500 km, called Hwasong-6. Around 1987-1989, when serial production of Hwason-6 had started, the development of Nodong got under way. Flight tests were conducted successfully in May 1993.

According to the Centre for Non-proliferation Studies (CNS) of the Monteray Institute of International Studies (MIIS), "this prompt sequence of development is remarkable and historically unprecedented for a small developing country. Pyongyang's rapid progress suggests a high level of foreign assistance".

North Korea reportedly entered into sales contracts with Libya, Iran and possibly Syria and Pakistan. Reports also indicate that in exchange for the Nodong system and technology, North Korea obtained materials and technology, including centrifuges for uranium enrichment, from Pakistan. The present production rate of Hwasong missiles is believed to be seven to nine a month, and Nodongs one to three a month.

The 1993 test is the only successful test of Nodong by North Korea. Also, because of geographic constraints Nodong has not been tested for its full range. However, experts reckon that it has Nodong's test data from Iran and Pakistan. Today, over 150 Nodongs have been deployed.

Nodong was followed up with the development of Taepodong-1, a two-stage missile with Nodong as its first stage and Hwasong as its second stage. This was flight-tested in the infamous launch of August 31, 1998, as a space launch vehicle (SLV), which failed to place a small satellite in orbit, though Pyongyang claimed it as a successful launch. In this space launch configuration, the rocket had a solid-fuelled third stage as well, which failed to inject the satellite properly.

Development of Taepodong-2 began in the mid-1990s. It would be more appropriate to call it by a different name because it has a different airframe for the first stage and is designed to have Nodong for its second stage. In July 1998, the Rumsfeld Commission report on `Ballistic Missile Threat to the U.S.' said, "North Korea was hard at work on the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile and could deploy the missile within five years."

Although North Korea had agreed with the U.S. to a moratorium on flight tests in September 1999 under the Agreed Framework of 1994, it continued the design and static testing of the rocket. Now, following the nuclear test and reports of a compact weapon system, the U.S. is likely to perceive this threat much more seriously.

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