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The danger of underestimating North Korean missile capabilities

By Liang Nah - posted Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Following the test of an underwater missile ejection system of the first Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in May earlier this year, North Korea conducted an even more ambitious test on 28th November last month, where a flight test of the aforementioned SLBM, the Bukkeukseong-1 or "Polaris-1" missile was conducted.

Despite the test being conducted from a floating barge, hence implying that Pyongyang lacks the confidence or capability for a full-fledged underwater test, the Bukkeukseong-1 failed upon launch, with missile debris subsequently seen floating in the Sea of Japan.

But even as anti-DPRK watchers might feel a sense of schadenfreude when Pyongyang's missile development team stumbles and falls, or even snigger at the lacklustre qualities of their missiles, such gloating is not only premature but ill-advised.


All weapons development starts small and with hiccups

Based on available information, the North Korean Bukkeukseong-1 is likely a copy of the obsolete Soviet SS-N-5 "Sark" SLBM.

Examining the development of the Sark as a guideline for the operational introduction of Pyongyang's first SLBM, it can be seen that the Soviets took about 4 years from 1958-1962 to design and flight test the first SS-N-5.

Notwithstanding the fact that Moscow's missile research was backed by the full scientific and industrial muscle of the USSR, while Pyongyang has to make do with the decidedly inferior military industrial complex driving its missile program, the latter can take however long it needs, and make all the blunders necessary (no matter how embarrassing) to build and deploy its first successful SLBM. It will be of cold comfort to Washington, Seoul and Tokyo whether the Korean People's Navy fields its first SLBM in 2019, or takes twice the time the Soviets did, and puts SLBMs out to sea in 2023.

Next, those who decry the North Korean "Polaris-1" as being inferior or retrograde, citing the missile's predicted short range of 890 nautical miles, which makes even a strike on Guam improbable, and its poor accuracy (only 50% of all missiles are likely to land within 2.8km of a target), should note this is only the DPRK's first SLBM prototype. As long as the Kim regime endures, its missile research and manufacturing sector can adopt a long run time horizon to implement modifications and improvements to this missile while it is still a prototype. Consequently, the final successfully flight tested version might be a far more threatening creature than the one designed in the initial blueprints.

As proof of the non-static nature of North Korean missiles, it can be seen that the DPRK's introduced missiles have increasing range and capabilities. From the Hwasong-5 in 1985 with a range of 320km and a 1000kg warhead, to the Rodong-1 in 1990 with a 900km range and identical warhead, and finally the Taepodong-2 which was the technology base for the Unha rocket which successfully lofted a satellite into space on 12 December 2012, it is evident that Pyongyang's scientists and engineers continually strive for the advancement of their nation's missile forces. It can thus be safely assumed that they will be equally committed to their SLBM project.

Political dedication and resource allocation

As earlier mentioned, Pyongyang will endeavour to promote the evolution of its ballistic missiles as long as the Kim regime is in charge. Based on the late Kim Jong-il's governing policy of "Songun", where the military is used as the principal source of political power in order to ensure regime security, and which endures under his son, Kim Jong-un, the development of North Korea's land based and now submarine borne missiles will continue to be funded and supported by the human talent and material resources which the DPRK can muster.


From the perspective of the younger Kim and his father, missiles and nuclear warheads form two halves of the deterrence against any U.S. or foreign plan to bring about regime change via military force, and are hence given priority over other concerns like economic restructuring or civilian welfare.

Fundamentally, it helps to understand that North Korea is arguably functioning with a wartime economy which has more in common with that of Germany in World War Two rather than any socialist client state under Soviet influence during the Cold War. Correspondingly, Berlin's focus on the development of "Wunderwaffe" or wonder weapons like the V-1 flying bomb (the first operational cruise missile) and the V-2 rocket (the first operational ballistic missile) are paralleled in the DPRK by the latter's dedication to the building of land and sea based ballistic missile capabilities.

Conclusion: a suggested policy stance vis-à-vis the DPRK

Insofar as Pyongyang appears determined to acquire a "triad" of delivery systems (land-based missiles, bombers and sea-borne missiles) carrying either conventional warheads or WMD (either nuclear or chemical warheads) payloads in order to preserve a "second strike" deterrence capability, it would behove the U.S., South Korea and Japan to cultivate a healthy respect for North Korean efforts to nurture the latter's missile development, of which the Bukkeukseong-1SLBM is the most recent example.

Accordingly, the best that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo can do is to adopt a two pronged strategy of utilizing their collective international influence to ensure effective implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions barring all transfers of missile or heavy weapons related technology to the DPRK, (Pyongyang apparently reverse engineered its SLBM from a few SS-N-5s acquired at the end of the Cold War), while reinforcing their military defences against North Korean ballistic missiles.

Towards this second priority, the U.S., South Korea and Japan should maintain a robust anti-submarine warfare presence in the region to counter any of the DPRK's future ballistic missile submarine deployments, while making national missile defence (the Korean Air and Missile Defence System of South Korea is an example) a top funding and implementation priority.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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