Print Читать на русском
Rate this article
(no votes)
 (0 votes)
Share this article
Alexander Yermakov

Military analyst, RAC expert

On July 3, 2016, North Korea will mark its first ever Strategic Forces Day. Following the fourth nuclear test that took place earlier this year, North Korea recently carried out successful tests of a medium-range missile. So, what kind of strategic forces is North Korea building?

On July 3, 2016, North Korea will mark its first ever Strategic Forces Day. Following the fourth nuclear test that took place earlier this year, North Korea recently carried out successful tests of a medium-range missile. So, what kind of strategic forces is North Korea building?

Background

The history of the Korean nuclear crisis is filled with all kinds of claims made by both sides. This article will mention only some of the most important events [1]. Kim Il-Sung was probably interested in nuclear weapons ever since they first appeared, and the 1950–1953 war during which the United States unambiguously threatened to use them against North Korea only emboldened his interest further. In 1965, the Soviet Union gave the North Koreans its IRT-2000 light-water reactor. At the time, the North Korean regime regarded the nuclear weapon as a means to boost its prestige and independence.

In December 1985, North Korea ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The decision was made under heavy pressure from the USSR, which made it the condition of continued aid. However, the situation changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in cooperation between North Korea and the new Russia collapse almost entirely, and led to the emergence of the United States-dominated unipolar world. China committed itself to strengthening its economic links with the West, which made providing military aid to the country problematical.

North Korea’s security situation became precarious. Although the United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from the south of the peninsula in 1991, the superiority of the military alliance of South Korea and the United States was overwhelming. Apparently, it was then that North Korea made the final decision to develop its nuclear weapons. In 1993, the country refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to carry out an unscheduled inspection and declared its intention to withdraw from the NPT. Judging from publicly available information, the United States at the time was seriously considering launching military actions, but was deterred by the forecast of high casualties. Some top U.S. generals assessed losses at 490,000 South Korean and 52,000 American troops in the first 90 days, or even one million dead, including 80,000–100,000 U.S. soldiers, though these figures are too high to be taken seriously [2]. The fact that the Pentagon made these figures public, on the contrary, suggests that the military establishment was strongly opposed to a conflict breaking out.

REUTERS

However, North Korea could not dismiss the possibility of an air offensive being launched against it. Such an operation could be conducted with minimum losses because the Korean People’s Army Air Force, though quite strong in terms of numbers, has obsolete aircraft and cannot hold its own even against South Korea, not to mention the United States [3]. An air campaign would not have decimated the North Korean army, but would have been fully capable of destroying its infrastructure, shattering its power industry, disrupting communications and exerting psychological pressure. Needless to say, a humanitarian disaster would ensue. Such a scenario is relatively painless for North Korea’s adversaries, but it would sooner or later cause the country to capitulate on certain terms, or prompt a ground offensive against a weakened North Korean army.

Thus, from the viewpoint of the North Korean military-political leadership, in order to survive, the country must have the means to prevent such an aerial war from being launched against it. The only credible deterrent is nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons have an intimidating reputation, which is not the same thing as effectiveness.

From the viewpoint of the North Korean military-political leadership, in order to survive, the country must have the means to prevent such an aerial war from being launched against it. The only credible deterrent is nuclear weapons.

In the 1990s, the nuclear crisis was defused by diplomatic means: an agreement was signed whereby North Korea put its withdrawal from NPT on hold in exchange for economic (mainly energy) assistance and the construction of light-water reactors that cannot be used for military purposes. However, cooperation with the West never got off the ground, which was probably inevitable because the two sides pursued different goals: it was not in the interests of the United States and South Korea to shore up the North Korean economy (the reactor was never built and fuel supplies were erratic), while North Korean, along with the declared missile programme, apparently continued nuclear research behind closed doors.

In 2002, the agreement was broken off. And on January 10, 2003, North Korea officially withdrew from NPT, thus setting a serious precedent that jeopardized the entire global non-proliferation system [4]. Since then, North Korea has carried out four tests: in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016. Notwithstanding the diplomatic efforts in the six-party talks, North Korea continues to build up its Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF) [5]. World events, especially the wars in Iraq and Libya (which abandoned its nuclear programme in 2003), are causing it to intensify its efforts in the field. So what kind of SNF is North Korea building?

Not Much to Choose From

CIA
Al-Samud II, Iraq

Building Strategic Nuclear Forces can help save resources and have a leaner army. A conventional arms race would have cost a great deal more because the country would have had to compete single-handedly against the collective military might of the West and the defence budgets of a coalition of countries. Engaging in a symmetric arms race with South Korea has not made sense ever since the prices of modern weapons started to soar and North Korea found itself in isolation (even China does not sell it modern weapons).

Opinions vary as to how many warheads North Korea has. The most reasonable and balanced assessment at present seems to be about ten finished warheads. More important is the quality of the warheads, above all the ratio between size and power. North Korea probably has, or will soon have, the capability to produce transportable low-yield warheads. It is now the question of the second component of the nuclear weapon, the means of delivery.

The classical SNF triad is based on air, ground and sea components, represented by missile-carrying bombers with cruise missiles or unguided bombs, intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBMs) in launch silos or on mobile ground complexes, and ballistic missile submarines, respectively.

Engaging in a symmetric arms race with South Korea has not made sense ever since the prices of modern weapons started to soar and North Korea found itself in isolation

The early notion of huge and unwieldy Korean nuclear devices prompted sarcastic forecasts of their possible use, the only viable option being to plant a “mine” in the way of an advancing enemy. Interestingly, the sceptics, perhaps unwittingly, were describing the tactics employed by the United States during the Cold War period [6]. Then the spots where nuclear mines might be planted on the presumed route of the Soviet offensive were determined. Until 1991, the U.S. group had such places on the Korean Peninsula. The terrain, which offers a limited choice of paths for an offensive, seems to be tailor-made for this kind of weapon, whose use may have a serious demoralising effect. The disadvantage is that it can only be used in the event of a ground-based campaign, which, as mentioned above, is unlikely.

The first nuclear weapons carriers were planes, but this is not an option for North Korea, because it does not have modern bombers and is vulnerable to a first nuclear strike. For North Korea, which attaches great importance to cannon and rocket artillery, it would be tempting to turn them into tactical nuclear weapons patterned on Cold War-era “nuclear artillery”, but that does not solve the problem of strategic deterrence and requires the serious miniaturization of warheads. This is hardly an option for North Korea considering its limited resources, including enriched fissile materials.

Thus we come to the conclusion that the only carrier that suits North Korea’s needs is the ballistic missile.

The Last Ally of Rogue States

U.S. Army
THAAD launch

The “first world” countries faced the threat of enemy ballistic missiles during the localized war in the Persian Gulf in 1991. The threat of Iraqi missiles was supposed to be countered by the latest MIM-104 Patriot missiles, which can theoretically intercept operational-tactical missiles [7]. However, while the Iraq War was on the whole a deserved triumph of the multinational force, the “rocket war” looked more like a defeat. Of the 88 registered launches [8], 53 rockets hit the targets covered by Patriots, and 27 were shot down [9]. The defeat of the launchers was an even more disappointing experience. Despite the massive resources committed, the efforts of the entire U.S. intelligence machine and numerous special forces operations, as many as 40 per cent of the warplane sorties (which delayed the start of the ground campaign by a week [10]), not a single ground missile was destroyed (link in Russian). This was partly compensated for by the poor results of rocket bombardment: military targets were hit only twice, in one case an F-15C fighter plane and a Patriot launcher were hit, and in another case a rocket hit a barracks killing 28 soldiers and wounding more than a hundred. It was a rare piece of luck that the dozens of rockets that fell on cities did not claim many civilian casualties: 14 people [11] died in Israel and one person died in Saudi Arabia (more than 300 people were wounded and many buildings were destroyed) [12].

In the 1991 war, Iraq used updated longer-range Soviet R-17 (Scud) missiles known as Al Hussein [13]. After its defeat, Iraq was prohibited from possessing and developing missiles with a range of more than 150 kilometres [14].

Not surprisingly, the North Korean military-political leadership, which kept a close eye on the localized wars of the 1990s and 2000s, has concluded that mobile ground missile complexes could form the basis of the strategic deterrence potential.

The United States had more success in terms of the contest between air defence and ballistic missiles in 2003 owing to the fact that it was using a new modification of the Patriot complex (PAC-3) that took the experience of 1991 into account, and also because the enemy was much weaker. At the time of the invasion, Iraq had a small number of Al-Samoud 2 and Ababil-100 missiles with a range of less than 200 kilometres. In 2003, Iraq launched at least 23 ballistic and cruise missiles [15], of which nine were shot down. Although most of the other missiles hit the sand, one success was reported: on April 7, a ballistic missile hit the field HQ of an army brigade killing three servicemen and two journalists, wounding 14 people and immobilizing a score of vehicles.

The 2003 campaign has shown that the United States is beefing up its capacity in theatre missile defence, but still has a long way to go to guarantee interception. Although several launchers were destroyed during the second Iraq War, the fact that it took 20 launches shows that the process of seeking missile complexes is still not up to scratch.

At this point in time, there is no coherent solution to the Korean nuclear problem.

Not surprisingly, the North Korean military-political leadership, which kept a close eye on the localized wars of the 1990s and 2000s, has concluded that mobile ground missile complexes could form the basis of the strategic deterrence potential. They are perfectly suited to the geography of the northern part of the Korean Peninsula: many hideouts and tunnels can be made in the mountains, making attempts to destroy mobile missile launchers that have a very good chance of surviving a nuclear strike futile. Obviously, even such specialized anti-missile complexes as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Aegis BMD cannot ensure 100 per cent interception [16], and nothing less will suffice when it comes to countering a nuclear attack.

North Korea does not need to equip a significant part of its missiles with nuclear warheads. Indeed, it would even be harmful to do so. A large number of conventional missiles would come in handy as a means of a “last warning”, and in the event of a main strike, they would serve as decoys for ballistic missile defence.

Krim Sahai
Rodong-1 Missile complex, 2012

North Korea has been actively pursuing its own missile programme since the 1980s. North Korean engineers quickly learned how to produce their own Scud missiles (called Hwasong-5) and even supplied them in mass to Iran during the Iran–Iraq War. In the first half of the 1990s, Hwasong-5 formed the basis for serial production of the longer-range Hwasong-6 (500 km) and Hwasong-7 (700–800 km). That comfortably covers the entire territory of the South Korea. Exactly how many such missiles have been built is unknown, but it would be safe to say that they number in the hundreds (the number of launchers of course is significantly less).

However, these missiles do not have the necessary range to strike at key U.S. military infrastructure facilities in Okinawa and Guam. In the mid-1990s, Rodong-1 missiles with a range of 1300–1500 kilometres were put into service [17]. These missiles, which can hit any target in Japan, have often been named as carriers of nuclear weapons in North Korea. A considerable number of these missiles is thought to have been built and they are combat-ready. The Musudan missile is a potential threat to Guam [18], home of Andersen Air Force Base, the main U.S. strategic aviation base in the region. It is widely believed in the West that Musudan is based on the Soviet R-27 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), possibly with the assistance of Russian specialists, though these reports can be neither confirmed nor denied. The range of that missile is variously estimated at between 2500 and 4000 kilometres. The missile is currently undergoing tests, with the first successful test having been carried out on 22 June (link in Russian).

North Korea also has its own “super missile” – the KN-08 (14?) [19]. There is some confusion surrounding it: during parades in 2012, 2013 and 2015, the same launchers demonstrated models of the missile that differed in size and the number of stages [20]. A smaller missile with two stages (sometimes called KN-14) was displayed in 2015, whereas earlier three-stage missiles were shown. Signs are that the missile is still a work-in-progress with a lot of tests still lying ahead. However, eventually it may become the first North Korean IBM that would be capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.

In a certain sense, the current situation suits the United States, since it justifies a build-up of the military infrastructure in the Pacific.

All the above-mentioned missiles use mobile ground launchers. According to unconfirmed reports, North Korea has a small number of missile silos, but even if they do exist, their function is auxiliary because they are highly vulnerable. For the same reason Taepodong missiles should not be regarded as true combat missiles because they are launched from a bulky launch facility and need a long time to be prepared for launching. The programme to develop submarine-launched ballistic missiles should also be mentioned. The North Korean media widely covered its tests, probably to impress its opponents (link in Russian). It would be unwise, however, for North Korea to count on them because its submarines are highly vulnerable for U.S., South Korean and Japanese anti-submarine defences. This is compounded by the weakness of North Korea’s aviation and surface fleet, which are unable to create safe deployment areas. Whether the possibility of launching missiles from their naval bases is worth the extra cost is a moot question. However, they may be useful as back-up assets, as the existence of even a couple of missile-carrying submarines would force the enemy to commit disproportionately large assets to counter them.

EPA
KN-14 Missile complex, 2015

The conclusion that suggests itself is pessimistic. At this point in time, there is no coherent solution to the Korean nuclear problem. North Korea will not give up its missile and nuclear programme just like that, while making significant concessions is not an option for the United States. Both sides are right in their own way, because one is fighting for survival while the other – in addition to national prestige – is upholding the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which is extremely important for recognized nuclear powers, including Russia. Besides, in a certain sense, the current situation suits the United States, since it justifies a build-up of the military infrastructure in the Pacific. Nor is there a military solution to the problem because even if one assumes that North Korea does not have usable nuclear weapons today, the price of war with North Korea does not justify the dubious benefits of Korean unification. So, the world will watch the slow maturing of yet another nuclear power.

The issue of the size of the nuclear arsenal North Korea seeks to have and the rate at which it may increase takes us into the realm of guesswork. Considering its goals, it would be reasonable for North Korea to be content with 40–50 warheads, even in the longer term. By the middle of the next decade, North Korea’s SNF will probably comprise a significant number of mobile ground missiles coupled primarily with armoured vehicles, only a small portion of which will be fitted out with nuclear

  • Launching domestic production of heavy chassis for KN-08/14 missile sizes is critical.

1. For a more detailed historical overview in Russian see the works of Russian experts on Korea, notably a review article by A. Lankov titled “Nuclear Socialism” and the cycle of lectures by K. Asmolov.

2. To put the numbers into perspective, there were only 36,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea in 1994. Losses of 80,000–100,000 would be double those that the United States sustained during the Vietnam War, which lasted many years.

3. Only a small number of MiG-29 (9–13) and Su-25 strike fighters delivered during the final years of the USSR are of any real combat value.

4. Israel, India and Pakisan have not signed the NPT.

5. The six parties to the talks are North Korea, China, the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

6. The USSR had similar systems, probably intended for the same purpose, but far less is known about its plans in this field.

7. There is some confusion with regard to the classification of weapons in the Russian and American traditions. In the United States, missiles are divided into tactical (with a range of less than 300 km), short-range (up to1000 km), medium-range (up to 3000–3500 km) – with short- and medium-range missiles sometimes referred together as “theatre ballistic missiles” – and intermediate (up to 5500 km). The USSR/Russia classified missiles as tactical (up to 300 km), operational-tactical (up to 500 km), short or shorter-range (up to 1000 km) and medium-range (up to 5500 km).

8. Including 46 on targets in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and 42 in Israel. It was one of Saddam Hussein’s aims to provoke a response from Israel and use it to undermine the international coalition. U.S. diplomats exerted great efforts to prevent Israel from entering the war.

9. Steven Zaloga. Scud Ballistic Missile and Launch Systems. 1955–2005, Osprey, 2006.

10. Robert Scales. Certain V

ictory: the U.S. Army in the Gulf War. Office of the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, 1993.

 

11. Two people died in the explosion, while the majority died of "indirect causes", primarily heart attacks.

12. For comparison, during the Iran–Iraq war in the spring of 1988, massive bombardments (about 200 missiles) of Iranian cities claimed 2,000 lives and forced an exodus of the civilian population from cities.

13. The range of fire was increased from 300 to 550–650 km (according to various estimates). The launchers were modernized MAZ-543 chassis from R-17 and domestically designed launchers, including semi-trailers attached to conventional civilian tow trucks.

14. Under UN Security Council Resolutions 687 and 707.

15. In addition to several Al-Samoud 2 and Ababil-100 missiles, that number included Soviet Luna-M missiles. “Cruise missiles” here means Chinese anti-ship HY-2 missiles refitted to hit ground targets. Not a single cruise missile was shot down.

16. In the narrow sense, Aegis is the information and control system of the U.S. Navy, primarily intended to defend aircraft carrier groups. The high potential of Aegis prompted the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Agency to launch the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (Aegis BMD) in order to develop marine and ground means of intercepting mobile ground missiles (link in Russian).

17. This is the South Korean name. Better known as the names Nodong-1/2 (1 and 2 differ in warhead mass and range) or Nodong A. “Nodong,” with a corresponding letter index, is sometimes used in the West to denote all North Korean medium-range ballistic missiles. Inside North Korea, the name Hwasong (Mars) is apparently used for similar purposes. Here and elsewhere the more common name has been used.

18. Also known in the West as BM-2, Rodong (Nodong)-B. In North Korea, it is possibly known as Hwasong-10.

19. Rodong (Nodong)-С, or Hwasong-13.

19. Rodong (Nodong)-С, or Hwasong-13.

20. On the basis of a Chinese commercial chassis purchased in 2011 (link in Russian).

21. Launching domestic production of heavy chassis for KN-08/14 missile sizes is critical.

Rate this article
(no votes)
 (0 votes)
Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
For business
For researchers
For students