Characterizing the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat

by Markus Schiller

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Research Questions

  1. What is the most plausible hypothesis to explain the nature of the North Korean missile program?
  2. What consequences might these findings have for U.S. and Republic of Korea policy and strategy toward North Korea?
  3. What data would be most valuable for better understanding the nature of the North Korean missile program?

Abstract

The security community generally believes that North Korea acquired Soviet guided ballistic missiles from Egypt in the 1980s, reverse engineered them, and has indigenously produced and deployed in North Korea perhaps 1,000 ballistic missiles of various types. This report questions this common view and seeks to better characterize the North Korean missile threat. The author compares the available data on the North Korean missile program against five hypotheses about the program's origins, sophistication, and scale, highlighting inconsistencies. The author finds that the most plausible characterization of the North Korean missile program is what he terms the "Bluff" hypothesis: The main purpose of the program is political — to create the impression of a serious missile threat and thereby gain strategic leverage, fortify the North Korean regime's domestic power, and deter other countries, particularly the Republic of Korea and the United States, from military action. The author maintains that the North Korean missile program's operational readiness seems to be secondary, and that therefore the threat posed by it has been exaggerated.

Key Findings

The Common View of the North Korean Missile Program

  • North Korea is commonly believed to have acquired Soviet guided ballistic missiles from Egypt in the 1980s, reverse engineered them, and deployed as many as 1,000 ballistic missiles of various types.
  • The possibility that some of these missiles might be armed with nuclear warheads is a serious concern.

North Korea Is Not Behaving Like a Developer and Producer of Large Numbers of Relatively Sophisticated Missile Systems

  • North Korea has conducted very few missile test launches, but the missiles used in these few launches have shown a high level of reliability.
  • Launches take place only at politically significant dates and are therefore not dictated by engineering development or training needs.
  • Soviet Scud missiles and the North Korean Scud missiles that have been observed look exactly the same, up to the smallest details.
  • North Korea apparently limits its reverse engineering and production capabilities to missiles and a few other defense products. For example, it possesses almost no automotive or aerospace industry.

The North Korean Missile Threat Is Largely a Bluff

  • North Korea has likely launched Soviet/Russian-made missiles (that are old but proven designs) to maximize the appearance of performance.
  • North Korea may never have tested missiles from its own production, and any such indigenous missiles cannot have noteworthy reliability or accuracy.
  • It cannot be ruled out that North Korea has nuclear warhead designs for its missiles, but without actual testing, the reliability of these warheads has to be assumed to be low.
  • The main purpose of the program seems to be political — to create the impression of a serious missile threat and thereby gain strategic leverage, fortify the North Korean regime's domestic power, and deter other countries, particularly the Republic of Korea and the United States, from military action.

Recommendations

  • North Korea should be considered to possess no real long-range missile threat, but steps should be taken to defend against a conventional short-range threat.
  • Concerns about North Korea's missile launches are overblown: Every launch further depletes the limited North Korean arsenals, and North Korea gains no real experience from these events. Since the purpose of the launches seems to be political, the United States and other nations should downplay or even ignore them.
  • A variety of avenues of investigation should be pursued to gain more information about the North Korean missile program.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Missile Basics

  • Chapter Three

    The Problem

  • Chapter Four

    Defining Five Hypotheses About the North Korean Program

  • Chapter Five

    What We Know

  • Chapter Six

    Consistency Check

  • Chapter Seven

    Discussion

  • Chapter Eight

    What We Would Like to Know

  • Chapter Nine

    Conclusions

  • Appendix

    Details on What We Know

The research described in this report was supported by the Stanton Foundation.

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