Despite occasional signals to the contrary, the North Korean government continues, in fits and starts, to try to develop long- range missiles. But the regime of Kim Jong Il finds the path to a significant breakthrough blocked — not by U.S. efforts, but by the Chinese and Russian governments. This new dynamic, combined with growing evidence that Washington has vastly overestimated the North Korean missile threat in its quest for a national missile defense, makes it unlikely Pyongyang will launch another long-range missile any time soon.
In recent months, North Korea has signaled it would curtail ballistic missile development after sending ripples of fear throughout East Asia with its 1998 missile test that prompted Washington to redouble efforts to build a national missile defense.
Late last year, Pyongyang told Russian President Vladimir Putin it might halt development altogether in return for commercial space-launch capabilities. In December, the regime pledged not to test fire another long-range weapon, like the three-stage Taepo Dong 1 that flew over Japan in 1998. In February, Pyongyang issued a veiled threat, saying stalled talks might force it to abandon its pledge.
Reliable intelligence indicates the regime is, in fact, struggling to develop its missile program. North Korea continues to assist other nations — most notably Iran, Pakistan and Syria – by sharing propulsion and staging technology that can add range to these nations’ missiles; in exchange, Pyongyang receives hard currency and access to certain technology. In North Korea, the focus has shifted away from live tests to laboratory and theoretical work aimed at increasing accuracy.
But the North finds itself stalled in making any significant breakthroughs. The program is chiefly hampered not by U.S. pressure, but by the unwillingness of the Chinese and Russian governments to significantly advance Pyongyang’s knowledge. Both Beijing and Moscow are withholding valuable technology. Contrary to Central Intelligence Agency projections, the North is not gaining significant Chinese or Russian technology.
Even if the regime chose to launch a long-range missile today, it would have great difficulty in doing so because the entire inventory of long-range missiles in North Korea appears to be as few as one or two weapons. The program’s true state appears starkly primitive and incapable of a significant breakthrough as long as China and Russia refuse to provide significant assistance. Another test launch is unlikely. And while the North won’t abandon the program, the American fear of a surprise strike – with little or no warning — is currently unfounded.
These findings suggest much of Washington’s case for a national missile defense in recent years — focused on the threat posed by the North — is weakening. The 1998 test flight forced the Clinton administration to become more aggressive on national missile defense; the findings of the Rumsfeld Commission six weeks earlier had warned the CIA could not predict a breakthrough. And late last year, advocates of a land-based national missile defense discounted the U.S. Navy‘s ability to shoot down missiles rising out of the North’s mountainous geography.
Up Close: The North’s Missile Program
North Korea’s armed forces — under the guise of a civilian agency – continue research and development efforts, as opposed to active testing.
The missile program is politically important. The regime continues the program instead of shelving it because the program has helped extract concessions from the United States and others, while increasing the North’s military capabilities and gaining it hard currency.
The pursuit of these political goals, however, mitigates the chances of a new missile test anytime soon. Such a launch would threaten engagement with South Korea’s government, which is pursuing its "sunshine" policy. And a launch would risk sorely needed foreign investment and aid. South Korean companies, despite a downturn, pledged to invest in North Korea in everything from tourism to heavy manufacturing.
Given the value of the program in its current state of hibernation, the North’s research efforts increasingly focus on improving the accuracy of long-range missiles. Lack of accuracy is the Achilles’ heel of the North’s program, which has overcome other obstacles such as devising primitive multistage vehicles and increasing range. Laboratory research is largely theoretical, involving physics calculations and mathematical estimates that are apparently sub-critical efforts.
Even the 1998 test’s intended aim remains a mystery to foreign intelligence agencies, underscoring problems with hitting a target precisely. The test launch captured the world’s attention, with the missile flying over Japan. But the flight of the Taepo Dong 1 appears to have been errant. If it were intended to launch a satellite into orbit, as the regime claimed, the eastward flight path would have been unnecessary. A 1994 test of the intermediate range No Dong missile showed similar problems.
The Taepo Dong 1‘s range reportedly is between 1,500 and 2,000 km with a payload capacity of about 900 kg. Only a few missiles have been manufactured — fewer than four, according to intelligence — and none are operational, though their components are at the launch site. More tests are required due to severe problems with guidance, accuracy and reaching required ranges.
The more advanced three-stage Taepo Dong 2 exists largely on paper. The missile was designed to have a solid fuel engine in its third stage, in order to dramatically extend its range to nearly 3,500 km. Because of a variety of challenges — likely a lack of funding — not even the CIA expects the missile to be ready for prime time until 2020 without considerable outside assistance. More recent research indicates the agency probably is correct and success soon is unlikely.
Hunting for technical clues to its problems as well as hard currency, Pyongyang continues to transfer technology and otherwise aid missile programs in Pakistan, Syria and Iran. While North Korea offers assistance in extending the range of missiles, it probably is using these programs as a cover to gain access to guidance technology, particularly from Iran.
Iran probably has advanced its own program to the point where it develops many components indigenously. Tehran could be providing North Korea with technology and a location for covert missile research and development. This linkage has not escaped the U.S. government. In December, Washington imposed sanctions against the North Korean firm of Changgwang Sinyong Corp. for exporting unspecified missile technology to Iran, according to the Federal Register.
Outside Help Drying Up
Without substantial outside assistance, North Korea will be unable to reach the next level in missile technology: the ability to launch a three-stage vehicle with a high degree of confidence in the warhead striking the intended target. The foreign help that once flowed into North Korea shows signs of drying up.
While on tour in Russia recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly criticized the Russian government for continuing to assist North Korea’s missile program. Foreign knowledge and components — particularly from Russia and China – have been vital to the development of Scud missile technology that is the foundation of Pyongyang’s missile program.
But technological assistance from Russia and China appears to be significantly decreasing and there are reasons to believe this trend will continue. Russian and Chinese advisors in North Korea directly assist the missile program, according to sources.
Moscow and Beijing, however, have significantly curtailed the transfer of critical technology, although they are certain to remain involved in the North Korean program. China has begun to establish an export control system to ensure it doesn’t provide missile and other components to countries no longer in its interest to assist, including North Korea. Both governments fear an arms race in Asia. And both governments are acting out of concern that North Korea is providing an easy justification for the U.S. drive to build a national missile defense that would undercut the remaining Chinese and Russian strategic arsenals.
Russia and China have placed North Korea’s missile program behind immediate national interests. Russia, in particular, is pursuing an economic relationship with South Korea. And China’s leaders worry the North’s program can be used to justify an arms buildup in Japan.
Russia and China therefore will continue to contain the North’s program, while maintaining just enough ties to control indigenous efforts. For example, each will probably keep the flow of technology down but keep personnel in the North to monitor and influence the program’s direction.
Next in North Korea
Reverberations from the 1998 missile test helped set the stage for the Stalinist nation’s growing acceptance by the international community. Pyongyang used the threat of its missiles and promises to scale-back development to position itself in negotiations with its neighbors and the United States.
Now, North Korea is highly unlikely to conduct another ballistic missile test. The Foreign Ministry recently announced that while it promised not to fire a missile during talks, it couldn’t continue "to do so indefinitely." Though widely seen as a threat to launch a missile, the statement reflects the basic strategy. A veiled threat is valuable for gaining concessions.
From a technical standpoint, North Korea is probably unprepared to carry through with even this veiled threat. The military faces severe technical challenges and a paucity of missile parts and components in the inventory with which to conduct more long-range tests. In addition to its usefulness as a trump card, low-level research is likely to continue not only to develop better weapons systems for the North Korean military but also for export.
Due to primitive technology and limited assistance from Russia and China, however, the program is unlikely to advance significantly anytime soon.
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