North Korea is “in the process of deploying” a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today Aug. 18. The missile might be able to fly up to three times as far as previous North Korean missiles, reaching U.S. facilities in Asia.
Although the official emphasized that Pyongyang’s efforts to improve its missiles have been ongoing “for years,” recent press reports have given the issue new visibility.
The official did not dispute press accounts, based on a South Korean Defense Ministry report, that North Korea has been testing missile engines and deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The official also confirmed that the missile is based on a Russian missile, reportedly the Soviet SS-N-6. The official said the United States believes North Korea is deploying the missile in a “road-mobile mode,” although the SS-N-6 was a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The precise range of the new missile is unclear. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that a missile similar to the SS-N-6 “could reach U.S. facilities in Okinawa, Guam, and possibly Alaska” if it were developed by North Korea.
The State Department official did not give a specific range for the missile, but several press reports cite U.S. and South Korean government estimates of 2,500-4,000 kilometers. The most advanced version of the SS-N-6 had an estimated range of 3,000 kilometers. A new missile’s range would vary considerably depending on the size of its payload.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denied that Russia had provided North Korea with missile technology, the Interfax News Agency reported Aug. 5. Russia no longer deploys the SS-N-6.
The State Department official also stated that North Korea is “arguably” in the process of deploying the missile without flight-testing it. The official noted that Pyongyang does not develop missiles in the same way the United States does, pointing to North Korea’s deployment of its Nodong missile after only one flight test as an example of its unorthodox missile deployment practices.
However, Greg Thielmann, who served as director of the strategic, proliferation, and military affairs office in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, expressed skepticism of that possibility. Thielmann told Arms Control Today Aug. 20 that he is “dubious” that North Korea would deploy the missile without testing it, adding that it is “unclear what experience the North Koreans have with [the missile].” He also noted that the liquid-fueled SS-N-6 would carry the same operational disadvantages of previous North Korean liquid-fueled road-mobile systems, such as being more conspicuous and requiring longer launch times than solid-fueled systems.
Asked about press leaks from U.S. officials that Iran is conducting flight tests for North Korea, the State Department official said that it is “always a possibility” but added that the United States does not have solid information that such cooperation is happening. It is not clear that North Korea “would depend on Iran for anything,” the official added. Iran receives assistance from North Korea on its ballistic missile program, according to a November 2003 CIA report.
North Korea has observed a self-imposed moratorium on testing longer-range missiles since 1999. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during a May summit meeting that Pyongyang intends to continue adhering to the moratorium. (See ACT, June 2004.)
The longest-range missile North Korea has flight-tested is the Taepo Dong-1, which it launched over the Sea of Japan in 1998. As configured, that missile cannot reach the United States. The longest-range missile North Korea has deployed is the 1,300-kilometer-range Nodong, according to a December 2001 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).
North Korea imposed the missile testing moratorium after its 1998 tests raised tensions with Japan and the United States. Since then, the progress of its missile development program has remained uncertain. Then-CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee in February that North Korea’s “multiple-stage Taepo Dong-2—capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear-weapon-sized payload—may be ready for flight testing.” The 2001 NIE expressed this same judgment, adding that the Taepo Dong-2 could hit parts of the continental United States in a two-stage configuration and all of North America in a three-stage configuration. Neither of those missile configurations has been tested.