26.08.2019 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How North Korea Presumably Develops Its Nuclear Missile Programme


Despite the détente on the Korean peninsula, neither party has yet undertaken the obligation to freeze military construction. In this regard, it is worth noting how the North Korean nuclear missile programme developed during this time.

On January 15, 2019, South Korea published the Defense White Paper for 2018. This text is intended to disclose the defense policy of the country and describe the present situation in this field, and we touched upon it when we mentioned that, in the document, the North ceased to be named as an enemy. Nevertheless, the new edition reads that North Korea has 50 kg of plutonium and a large volume of enriched uranium. As for missile armaments, it was specified that Pyongyang had not carried out launches of ballistic missiles on distances which could show whether the North has a technology of repeated entry of a warhead into firm layers of the atmosphere. Therefore, this question demands additional confirmation.

What can one say about it 6 months later?

First, we know something about the development of the missile program, judging by the launches in May, July and August 2019.

As was already noted in the materials which are directly dedicated to these launch practices, North Korea had developed a new model of short range ballistic missiles. Experts specify that the missiles have a flight altitude of 40-50 km and their range is increased to 400-600 km, which allows to strike any point in South Korea. Besides, the North managed to develop the operated weapon technologies similar to the Russian Iskander complex, which will result in the need to create a new missile defense system in South Korea.

On April 3, 2019, the head of the United States Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, speaking at the hearings in the Strategic Troops Subcommittee at the Senate Committee on Armed Forces, noted that, in 2017, North Korea was close to beginning the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and their actual deployment. The General said that Kim Jong-un had announced the completion of the corresponding research after the successful tests of ICBM capable to reach the US in North Korea.

On June 6, 2019, experts of the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) submitted the report on the North Korean programme for developing nuclear weapon technologies and ballistic missiles. The conclusion was drawn that the May launches of North Korea had been aimed at improving the characteristics of the missiles, including the targeting systems. It was also noted that the North Korean missile tests had been aimed at designing technologies which would allow to bypass, or reduce efficiency of, such missile defense systems as Patriot, Aegis and THAAD.

On July 11, the US Military Command on the Korean peninsula submitted the annual strategic report Strategy Digest 2019, which reads that the North Korean intercontinental Hwasong-15 ballistic missile is capable of reaching the US territory. Its estimated flight range is 12.874 km. Another ICBM, Hwasog-14, is capable of reaching a part of the US territory. Its flight range is 10.058 km, and that of the Hwasong-13 missiles is 3.418 km.

In this document, the US military actually recognized that the North managed to design a ballistic weapon system: from short range missiles to intercontinental missiles, and South Korean media became hysterical: “The international community demands that North Korea carry out a total, irreversible and controlled abandonment of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the denuclearization of the North includes both nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.”

Moreover, in the opinion of John Schilling of the American scientific organisation Aerospace Corporation available at the 38 North website, if successful at maintaining the current rates of improvement of missile technologies, Pyongyang will manage to create a solid propellant intercontinental ballistic missile by 2025. Comparing the first and the second missile launches of Hwasong-14, Schilling assumed that North Korea had decreased the warhead weight from 500 to 350 kg, which allowed to increase its flight range.

The number of the missile bases detected by Victor Cha and associates is growing as well. In May 2019, the facilities, apart from those in Sakkanmol, Sino-ri and Sannam-ri, included a base in Yusan-ri of the province of South Pyongyang. The facility was found a few years ago, but there were no details. Now, the report on the Beyond Parallel website named it as a probable storage of the Hwasong-13 intercontinental ballistic missiles which had not been tested yet, Hwasong-14 (is tested on July 4 and 28, 2017), or Hwasong-15 (tested on November 29, 2017).

Secondly, it is possible to note occasional activities at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station and rumors that the North is preparing to launch a satellite.

Rumors of a satellite launch had been noted since March 2019 and, speaking on March 11 in Washington at the nuclear policy conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Stephen E. Biegun, the United States Special Representative for North Korea, said that the US considered the situation very serious.

However the US National Security Adviser John Bolton did not increase the bustle about it. “The US Government is spending many resources and efforts, therefore we do not need to rely on commercial satellite pictures.” And more: “There is a lot of activity in North Korea all the time, but I am not going to speculate on what this particular commercial satellite picture shows.” On the other hand, John Bolton warned that North Korea resuming its nuclear and missile tests “would not be a good idea.” Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff of the White House, also stated in his interview with Fox News Sunday that resuming the missile tests would be considered as violation of trust.

On March 13, the American Internet portal 38 North specializing in the North Korean issues, published additional satellite pictures and specified that there were no signs of new activity around Tongchang-ni. The construction which had been going on for several weeks was completed, two facilities were cleaned from garbage. At the launch site, the rail structure was moved to the edge.

Thirdly, there are some data and rumors about nuclear facilities outside the famous Nyongbyon and Punggye-ri, and about the operation of the known ones.

In February 2018, 38 North, noted that an experimental light-water reactor in the Nyongbyon nuclear center could be launched: last year, the North completed the power supply system and adjusted the cold water supply for cooling the reactor. On the nearby Kuryongan River, a dam which will be the source of cold water was built.

Still in 2018, a so-called complex in Kangson was added to the lists of suspects, where there may be 6,000-12,000 centrifuges depending on the configuration of the enterprise. It is claimed that Trump’s mentioning it in Hanoi caused a strong reaction of the North Korean party.

On February 13, 2019, it transpired that North Korea had given its basic consent to the checks of its nuclear facilities by the IAEA inspectors. According to the source of the Korea Times newspapers, the terms and venues of the inspections would be discussed at the subsequent negotiations of the US and North Korea at the operating level. Pyongyang also promised to guarantee the safety of the inspectors and noninterference in the checks. The South Korean Presidential Administration refused to comment on this information.

In 2019, according to intelligence of the US and South Korea, another facility for uranium enrichment was found in North Korea. In English, it is called Bungang complex. Allegedly located several km away from Nyongbyon, but belonging to the administration of the neighboring county. It is believed that the facility can contain up to 10,000 centrifuges.

As for Nyongbyon, in 2010, it already had 2,000 centrifuges, but later the facility was expanded and nowadays it is believed that there are 4,000 now. FYI: 2,000 centrifuges at full serviceability and full load will be enough for approximately 40 kg of weapon quality uranium per year.

According to the Russian expert in North Korean weapons of mass destruction (WMD) Vladimir Khrustalev, the maximum number of centrifuges operating in North Korea can reach 26,000, which means 520 kg of weapon uranium a year.

On April 17, the American Center for Strategic and International Studies, on the basis of the analysis of commercial satellite pictures made on April 12, demonstrates that the Nyongbyon nuclear center has radioactive materials transport to North Korea. It was reported that pictures clearly showed 5 specialized railway carriages. They are located near the uranium enrichment plant and the radiochemical laboratory. The yard of the enterprise has a 20 feet tall cargo container.

On March 5, 38 North carried out further analysis of the satellite pictures: it is visible that a column of white steam rises from the pipes of the nuclear facility, but no signs of water drained from the reactor cooling system were visible. In addition, the number of the servicemen in the southern part of the nuclear center sharply increased.

On March 16, 2018 the British HIS agency, referring to data of the report of the Jane’s Intelligence Review magazine, drew a conclusion that North Korea had launched its 5 MW experimental light-water reactor in the nuclear center Nyongbyon in the test mode. The steam from the pipes was allegedly connected with the tests of gas discharge systems during the operation of the reactor.

On March 29, 2018 the New York Times, with reference to the same materials, gave more details. It is believed that Nyongbyon could have been launched at the end of February, and pictures show that there is a power line coming from the reactor. It allows to assume that the reactor is intended for generating the electrical power for civil purposes, but it can also be used for the production of plutonium.

On May 19, the US President Donald Trump gave an interview to the Fox News TV channel where he said that the responsibility for the failure at last summit in Hanoi completely lies with Pyongyang, as “the chairman of the State Council of North Korea Kim Jong-un expressed his readiness to terminate one or two nuclear facilities. However North Korea has 5.” The statement evoked a wide response around the world, but the South Korean media noted that “it is unknown, how accurate this information is. Judging by the manner of Trump’s speech, it is impossible to draw a specific conclusion. It is remarkable that the head of the White House often provides inaccurate statistics while discussing topical issues. And still it is possible to state with confidence that the US has some data on the number of nuclear facilities of Pyongyang.”

However, according to an anonymous source of the Japanese newspaper Asahi, Pyongyang has at least ten nuclear facilities most of which are located in the vicinity of the North Korean capital.

Actually, as a number of Russian experts note, such talk highlights an important problem. The US cannot be sure that Pyongyang did not hide another facility of the kind somewhere in the mountains, and North Korea, when presented with such charges, will not be able to prove that it has nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, for effective monitoring and “full checkability,” the verification mode over the country will be comparable to occupation, which the North will never agree to. At the same time, up to one thousand centrifuges can be placed in premises with a total area of 600 sq. m, and such volume allows to acquire the amount of uranium necessary for the creation of one nuclear bomb in a year.

On June 6, 2019, 38 North again showed the pictures proving that Nyongbyon was operating and probably producing enriched uranium, though to determine the actual levels of enrichment or the general capacity of centrifuges is impossible. However, in June 2019, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) counted that the North had from 20 to 30 nuclear warheads as of January this year, which is 10 more than last year.

Except for the uranium enrichment facilities, the satellites detected a plant for production of solid propellant missiles in Hamhung in the South Hamgyŏng Province. It is a big underground complex known since 2017 and important in that both the new short-range Iskander type missile and the submarine ballistic missile are believed to have solid propellant engines.

 Fourthly, North Korea’s possession (now or in the near future) of a new type submarine capable to carry ballistic missiles is added to the situation.

In April 2019, the news about the construction of new 3,000-ton submarine appeared in Chosun Ilbo, once again references are made to the Google Earth satellite pictures made on March 2 that “show heaps of cylindrical components and materials which are presumably submarine bulkheads.”

The same newspaper reported that North Korea had submitted an application for the Taiwan military submarine in 2018, and in exchange promised to transfer the technology for design for the air-independent propulsion engine (AIP). It is alleged that, in August 2016, a Taiwan submarine expert even visited the Chinese border city of Dandong to assess the situation, but, in the end, Taipei decided not to buy the technology, as it was improbable that the North would be authorized to sell it under the UN sanctions.

On June 12, 2019, 38 North, referring to the analysis of satellite pictures, noted that the Sinpo shipyard showed some activity connected with transportation of spare parts and equipment near the hangar where submarine assembly is carried out. Besides, 12 facilities, presumably cranes, are located near the mooring.

On July 23, 2019, Kim Jong-un examined the new submarine. According to the KCNA, “the new submarine is intended for performing assignments in the operational zone of the Sea of Japan and is expecting operational placement.” That is, it will soon be integrated in the system. No details about the characteristics of the boat were given in the message.

As the head of parliament’s intelligence committee, Lee Hye-hoon informed the media, the new North Korean submarine seems a little bigger than the Gorae class submarine weighing 2,500 tons and capable of carrying three ballistic missiles based underwater (SLBMs). According to some rumors, North Korea managed to create a certain “new propulsion system.”

One of the leading experts on North Korea Military Industrial Complex Ankit Panda agrees that the new submarine has a missile compartment capable to contain up to four ballistic missiles; the opinion is shared by the senior research associate of the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies Dave Schmerler. According to them, investment in the underwater fleet and its updating are a natural course of development of the North Korean rearmament programs.

Let us note that, in the meanwhile, North Korea is taking certain steps for improving the combat training of its troops and designing conventional weapons, which we shall dwell on in future articles.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: