Days after threatening a missile test aimed at the waters off the coast of the American territory of Guam and just ahead of the annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises taking place this week, Pyongyang released new propaganda posters highlighting the success of its recent intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
“The entire U.S. mainland is within range of our missiles!” reads a poster showing several North Korean missiles striking a map of the United States engulfed in flames.
While the poster’s claim that the entire United States is within range is an exaggeration, according to expert estimates, there is no denying the swift advancement of North Korea’s missile program.
Since becoming leader of North Korea in 2011, Kim Jong-un has ordered more than 80 missile tests, more than that of his father Kim Jong-il and grandfather Kim Il-sung combined. More importantly, these missile tests represent an increasingly diverse arsenal of missiles with an array of new capabilities.
Beginning in the 1980s, Pyongyang’s missile program has evolved from reconfiguring Soviet Scud missiles to developing missiles with more complex capabilities, such as solid fuel, being launched from a submarine, and miniaturized nuclear warheads.
North Korea now possesses at least a dozen different missile types, varying in range from approximately 100 miles to more than 6,000 for the new ICBM tested in July. The short-range missiles can reach U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan while longer range missiles can reach Guam—where the U.S. bases strategic bombers—and now the continental United States.
These developments have been underway for years, and while early failures made it difficult for experts to discern the North’s progress, they undoubtedly offered important lessons to North Korean engineers that contributed to future successes. North Korea’s pace of successful tests appears to have accelerated, and it has crossed several milestones in the last two years.
In March of 2016, North Korea successfully tested a solid fuel rocket engine. While generally less accurate than liquid fueled missiles, solid fuel missiles have an advantage in military uses as they do not need to be “fueled up” prior to launch and can therefore be launched much quicker—ideally before discovery by an adversary. Currently, only a few of North Korea’s short and medium range missiles possess solid fuel, but it will likely be incorporated into longer range missiles in the future.
Solid fuel technology is also essential for another key development— a submarine launched ballistic missile. Because it is less volatile and is stored within the missile, solid fuel is better suited for fragile submarines where space is at a premium. North Korea conducted its first successful test of a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM)—the KN-11 or Pukkuksong-1— in August 2016. North Korea currently possesses one Sinpo-class submarine capable of firing SLBMs, but experts believe it is building more.
The most worrisome advance for the United States is North Korea’s two tests of the Hwasong-14, Pyongyang’s first ICBM. Launched on July 4th and 28th of this year, the Hwasong-14 is fired from a large truck known as a TEL (transporter, erector, launcher) to help it evade detection. It is believed to have a range of more than 6,000 miles—reaching as far as Chicago. While this maximum range is alarming, experts do not yet believe the missile could travel this far with a full payload such as a nuclear warhead.
For many years, government and non-government experts believed North Korean nuclear weapons were large and could only fit on its short-range missiles. However, the Washington Post reported this month that a new Defense Intelligence Agency assessment had determined “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.” By beating estimates for this milestone, Pyongyang has experts wondering when it will have a fully capable ICBM ready for deployment.
The major remaining technical hurdle for North Korea to launch a nuclear warhead-tipped ICBM is developing a reliable targeting and reentry vehicle for the warhead. The force and friction of reentering the Earth’s atmosphere generates immense heat that could cause a fragile warhead to break apart, and the speed and range of an ICBM presents a more complicated targeting challenge than shorter range missiles.
Following the tests on July 4th and July 28th, the CIA assessed a reentry vehicle on the Hwasong-14 would likely survive reentry, and North Korea will aim to improve this capability in future tests.
North Korea’s prolific advances beg the question: how did it improve so rapidly despite international sanctions? Philip Coyle, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and former assistant secretary of defense, told The Cipher Brief North Korea “has advanced its missile programs by devoting a proportionately larger amount of its economy to missile developments and by obtaining technical help from other countries.”
From the earliest days of North Korea’s missile program, many of its missile designs were based off of Soviet ones. As international pressure on the regime has mounted, North Korea has had to get more creative in obtaining technical resources. A recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies connected photos of North Korean missiles to a Russian engine design originating from a factory in Ukraine. While it appears Pyongyang capitalized on chaos in Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it is unclear whether the Russian government or private parties facilitated the deal.
Additional help came from China, but again, the government connections are murky. The TELs used to transport and launch the Hwasong-14 are the same make as those used by China’s nuclear forces and were imported under the pretense of civilian use—downgraded versions used for construction or logging— in 2012.
While the UN’s new round of sanctions following July’s ICBM tests will help to deprive North Korea of additional funding and resources for its missile program, Pyongyang has proven to be adept at evading such measures and already possesses much of the know-how it needs.
North Korea’s technical success appears to have increased Kim’s confidence. His threat to conduct further tests aimed towards Guam—complete with estimated flight times and splashdown points just within international waters— was unprecedented, and President Donald Trump’s decision to double-down on his threat of unleashing “fire and fury” on North Korea further escalated tensions until Kim paused his plans to go ahead with the test.
The brinksmanship between the two leaders in this episode does not bode well for future exchanges, with an increasingly capable and confident North Korea and an increasingly frustrated Trump Administration.
North Korea’s missile development will likely continue apace, and as its capabilities grow, it will present an increasingly complicated policy challenge for the U.S. and its regional allies. Halting North Korea’s missile program, it would seem, is even harder than rocket science.
Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.