North Korea’s ICBM Development

North Korea recently announced through its state-run Central News Agency that it had successfully created and tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) engine. While there are few details and no third-party objectively confirming what happened, the mere possibility of this is alarming to observers around the world. If North Korea has the capacity to launch ICBMs then it can potentially hit the United States and/or Japan. One of the significant challenges in international security today is how to alleviate the North Korean threat in Asia. North Korea’s foreign policy over the last several decades has mirrored its insecurity regarding a possible absorption from the South, a betrayal by its only ally China, or forced regime change by the United States.

If the North Korean claims are to be believed, then the development of a functioning ICBM threat would be a significant step for its young leader, Kim Jong-Un. Kim and North Korea have long sought to increase their negotiating leverage on the international scene by developing nuclear weapons. North Korea’s April 9th test of the large liquid-fuel engine is a development that not only highlights the growing threat posed by North Korea but also put to rest any skeptics that still claim that North Korea does not have a working weapon of mass destruction program. According to experts at the US-Korea Institute, three important conclusions can be made regarding this test. 

First, North Korea was able to create the ballistic missile engine by reverse engineering old Soviet submarine-launched missiles. The missiles, also called the R-27/SS-N-6 “Serb” projectiles use high-energy propellants that would give a missile range greater than what experts have long believed North Korea was capable of with their traditional kerosene/nitric acid powered engines. Second, based on the first conclusion, North Korea would thus be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to targets at a distance of 10,000 to 13,000 km. That range would nearly double what experts believed North Korea to be capable of and could potentially hit targets on the US East Coast, including New York and Washington D.C. Finally, if the current ground test program successes, including the recent claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test, are to be believed, then experts at the institute believe that North Korea could begin flight tests of ICBM in little as a year. If flight tests begin this year then by 2020 North Korea could have limited operational capability with its ICBM range. 

While some analysts in South Korea and the South Korean National Intelligence Agency have dismissed these claims as fraudulent, there are several factors to be considered. One, based on satellite imagery, Kim Jong-Un was definitely present during the ICBM engine tests and given the gravity of a failed test, it is likely that the North Korean scientists were fairly confident of the operational status of the ICBM engines. Second, the North Korean state media recently released video footage of Kim observing reentry vehicle ground testing so it is likely that North Korea might be far closer to conducting flight tests than previously thought. 

Based on these conjectures, it is important to consider future implications. Obviously, an ICBM-capable North Korea would have more leverage on the international community. For example, this might make the UN Security Council think twice before introducing new sanctions on North Korea. In addition, if North Korea continues its war-like threatening rhetoric to blast the United States or South Korea, China may increase its criticism of the regime. While China has been a long-standing ally of North Korea, it is only its ally because North Korea provides a buffer zone between it and the United States. A nuclear North Korea with a belligerent stance should alarm China. 

Overall, up until recently North Korea has been very secretive about the exact capabilities of its nuclear program. Whether the increased pace and visibility of North Korea’s WMD activities will continue remains unclear. This could just be an extension of the heavy war rhetoric that the North displays every year in response to the Korea Foal Eagle joint war games with the United States. Or it could be a diversion intended to increase patriotism among its citizen alongside many purges that have occurred within the North Korean inner circle. Whatever the exact reason may be, North Korea is clearly intending to move full steam ahead with its nuclear program.

By Jason Shin