What Do We Know About North Korea’s Ballistic Missiles?
Andrew Wheeler posted on May 24, 2017 | 2008 views

North Korea’s dictators are well-known for both making threats to western countries. On May 14th, 2017, Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un followed through with a test of an ICBM.

Kim Jong Un photographed with a submarine-launched missile in 2015. (Image courtesy of Youtube.)
Kim Jong Un photographed with a submarine-launched missile in 2015. (Image courtesy of Youtube.)

Kim Jong Un and North Korean Nuclear Threats

After he ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong Un ran for “election” unopposed and became the supreme leader of the Supreme People’s Assembly in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Since his journey to power began five years ago, Un’s rhetoric has consistently involved veiled or direct threats of military action against other sovereign nations. After Un’s ballistic missile testing last Sunday on the Eastern Coast of North Korea—widely reported as its most sophisticated to date—the public is taking a closer look at the kind of damage North Korea could deliver with their current weapons program.

North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung started the missile program in the 1960s, with the goal of gaining the ability to strike American military bases in countries as far away as Japan. The program accelerated in the 1980s when Soviet ballistic missiles were acquired by Egypt. North Korean weapons engineers were able to copy them and create their own commercially viable medium-range ballistic missiles that the country sold to Syria, Iran and Pakistan, among other countries, in exchange for nuclear technology and oil, among other things.

Up until this past February, when a solid-fueled medium range ballistic missile was first successfully tested, the ballistic missiles North Korea tested were liquid-fueled missiles, a technology that the United States eliminated in the 1980s due to their unstable nature. Kim Jong Un has stated that he wants to create an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of striking the continental United States, and recently threatened Australia with a similar message in April.

What Qualifies as an ICBM?

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), which was formed in 1945 by scientists who’d worked in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project:

“Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) have ranges of greater than 5,500 km. ICBMs create a problem because they enable a country to break out of a regional context and move toward potential global impact. Regardless of the origin of a conflict, a country may involve the entire world simply by threatening to spread the war with an ICBM.”

Two Most Recent Rockets Tested by North Korea

Sunday, May 14th:

The KN-17 (Hwasong 12) two-stage liquid missile was successfully launched and flew 787 kilometers, reaching an altitude of 2,111 kilometers. According to GlobalSecurity.org, “the missile was said to be capable of flying 4,000, and up to 4,500 kilometers. The North Korean state news agency KCNA said the test was to verify the capability to carry a "large scale heavy nuclear warhead.” This meets criteria to be considered an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

The KN-17 missile was widely reported to have been displayed by the country in a military parade on April 16th, 2017. (Image courtesy of csis.org)
The KN-17 missile was widely reported to have been displayed by the country in a military parade on April 16th, 2017. (Image courtesy of csis.org)

Sunday May 21st:

On Sunday, the Korean Central News Agency (state-controlled media of North Korea) announced that the nation had successfully launched a Pukguksong-2, a medium-intermediate range solid-fuel missile from a mobile launchpad. The range is about 1200 – 3000 kilometers.

The pukguksong-2 missile on parade in North Korea. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia, unidentified photographer.)
The pukguksong-2 missile on parade in North Korea. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia, unidentified photographer.)

The Difference Between a Liquid-Fuel Rocket and a Solid-Fuel Rocket

A solid-fuel rocket is safer, less complicated and less expensive than a liquid-fuel rocket. Liquid-fueled rockets are propelled by a liquid-state fuel and oxidizer that are combined and ignited in a combustion chamber. Thrust and fuel-flow can be regulated and the engine can be turned on and off. By contrast, a solid-fuel rocket uses a premixture of a fuel and an oxidizer in a solid state. The thrust from a solid-fuel rocket cannot be regulated and the engine cannot be turned on and off.

Consensus on North Korea’s Nuclear Payload Capability

The level of devastation a nuclear weapon can deliver is measured in yield by kilotons (1000 tons) and megatons (1,000,000 tons), relative to 1 ton of conventional TNT (trinitrotoluene) explosive. Hiroshima was hit by a 15-kiloton blast, and North Korea is thought to have around 15 nuclear weapons of this magnitude.

The challenge for North Korean engineers involves miniaturizing these existing nuclear weapons while retaining seventy-five percent of the yield. This is no small feat of engineering, but Kim Jong Un understands, perhaps better than his predecessors, that there is no way for North Korea to realistically deliver a nuclear bomb with their current aircraft, and that any attempt to detonate a nuclear bomb from a ship would be short-lived.

Intelligence on the progress of nuclear miniaturization is hard to gather from the secretive country. Though they don’t officially have an ICBM, the KN-17 and Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile tests are an indication that North Korea under Kim Jong Un is indeed focused on making the threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile packed with a nuclear payload a reality.

Who Could North Korea Strike Right Now?

South Korea obviously faces the most danger, but theoretically, if North Korea had developed their ability to miniaturize a nuclear payload into a medium-range liquid fuel ballistic missile like the KN-17, they could deliver a nuclear payload to a target 4500 kilometers away. Kim Jong Un has expressed a desire to strike at Naval Base Guam (USA) in Apra Harbor, but the amount of deterrence is unbelievable. If they could deliver a payload close to Hiroshima in kilotons approximately 3500 kilometers to Guam by way of an ICBM, they would certainly face complete annihilation by the United States of America.

The range of the Pukguksong-2 is not sufficient to hit Guam.


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