In the second nuclear age, we have entered a new and dangerous phase of unchecked proliferation in which missile proliferation in many regions of the world is threatening to disrupt the global strategic balance. Over the past decade, North Korea’s nuclear programme has garnered world attention but the threat posed by its fastest-growing fleet of ballistic missiles has largely been ignored.
This lack of attention can be explained by the fact that much of the open source literature on the current status of North Korea’s ballistic missile programme is both inadequate and inconclusive. According to much of the open source literature, North Korea started working on its missile programme in the early 1960s when the Soviet Union extended cooperation to establish a nuclear research complex, including the installation of a Soviet IRT-2000 nuclear research reactor in Yongbyan.
The common view is that North Korea received its first Soviet-guided ballistic missiles from Egypt sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s and reverse-engineered them to serve as the basis for its indigenously produced more than 1000 ballistic missiles of various types. And North Korea’s failure-prone missile programme is just a bluff to gain strategic leverage by creating the false impression of a serious missile threat.
Ballistic missiles follow a ballistic trajectory over most of their flight paths and are generally categorised, according to their range, into four classes: Short-range (SRBM), with range of less than 1000 km; Medium-range (MRBM), which have a operational range of 1000 km-3000 km, and Intercontinental-range (ICBM) can travel more than 5500 km. Short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are commonly known as theatre ballistic missiles, whereas IRBMs and ICBMs are referred to as strategic ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles are also classified by fuel type and are described as solid or liquid propellants. Missiles with solid propulsion systems are considered more reliable because they require less preparation. On the other hand, liquid-propellant rocket have to keep oxidizer and fuel separate before deployment. Despite this difficulty, some Third World countries still rely on liquid-propellant technology because of greater access to it.
This article challenges the conventional view and argues that North Korea poses a greater threat today than is widely understood. The country has made huge progress in its development of long-range missile technology since Kim Jong-un took over power in 2011.
Recent media reports and the available unclassified evidence indicate that North Korea’s nuclear establishment has mastered the ability to build a large number of miniaturised plutonium-based nuclear warheads and put them on operational intercontinental missile.
A number of analysts are still downplaying the threat, resulting in overall complacency toward the North Korean threat. These divergent risk assessments can be attributed to the difficulty of gathering reliable information on North Korea’s missile programme but certain facts cannot be ignored. Pyongyang has deployed more than 800 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), that are capable of hitting targets anywhere in South Korea, and 200 Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) aimed at target cities inside Japan.
North Korea is also deploying two intercontinental ballistic missiles: the Taepodong-2, a two or three stage ballistic missile, and the road-mobile KN-08 missile, which is believed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons to the United States. A two-stage Taepodong-2 could strike Alaska, Hawaii and some part of the west coast, while a three-stage version could strike most of the continental United States.
One of the causes of these sudden advances is undoubtedly to be found in the voluntary nature of missile technology control regimes. North Korea has become a leading exporter of ballistic missiles to the entire developing world and is believed to have exported more than 500 ballistic missiles to different countries. But the existing global non-proliferation regimes fall short of controlling the transfer of missile technology across national borders.
The continuous deployment of ballistic missiles in some of the world’s most volatile regions has accentuated the risks of escalation. In 2015, more than 30 nations have operational missile capabilities, often serving as national status symbols. Best suited for delivering not only nuclear but also biological weapons, ballistic missile programmes pose significant security threats both regionally and globally.
The conventional view also holds that North Korea has launched Soviet-made missiles to maximise the appearance of performance and has never tested missiles from its own production. This view is based on same logic that Pyongyang had received significant help from China and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though there is some element of truth in this, there is a plenty of unclassified evidence available to prove the indigenous production of North Korea’s missile programme.
The Nodong missiles were designed and developed by North Korean engineers with almost no foreign assistance. The unclassified intelligence assessments claim that Pyongyang is self-sufficient in developing and producing ballistic missiles. Experts have pointed out a few problems of accuracy and reliability in the past because Pyongyang has not rigorously tested its missiles. However, their lack of precision does not make North Korea’s missiles any less dangerous for neighbouring countries.
The evidence emerging over the past few months should be enough to put to rest speculations regarding North Korea’s inability to mount miniaturised weapons on long-range weapons. Contrary to some naïve expectations, there is no chance that the Kim regime will freeze or dismantle its nuclear programme, bowing to US pressure. Rather, North Korea’s nuclear establishment can be expected to surmount all technical barriers and emerge as a major nuclear power over the next decade.
Pyongyang is also a putting a lot of effort into further modernising its cruise and tactical missiles. With the passage of time, it is becoming more difficult for the United States to attack and destroy North Korean missiles given the difficulties regarding locating those missiles because of their relatively big quantity, mobility and short launch preparation times. Furthermore, there is a fair possibility that North Korea has stored most of its missiles in underground facilities to avoid attacks.
Curbing the spread of missile technology by North Korea has been difficult because of lack of recognition of the threat it poses. The MTCR has also not been able to address all these concerns related to missile systems, becoming totally incapable of mitigating the dangers associated with the global nuclear trade.
The majority of experts agree that North Korea’s nuclear and missile successes pose a clear threat to global security. And if immediate steps are not taken to constrain its missile programme, it might not be very difficult for the cash-strapped North Korean regime to secretly sell ballistic missile technology to terrorist organisations.
If that happens, catastrophic events would follow.